A project that expands on the Ethiopian government’s land certification program offers an example of a successful strategy for expanding women’s access to land ownership, which can have long-standing impacts on livelihoods, food security, and self-sufficiency of households.
This project has demonstrated that community buy-in is central to the success of land tenure programs, and that organizations must work with community leaders, women’s groups, and local NGOs to design projects, monitor results, and ensure that project activities benefit target populations rather than place additional burdens on them.
By Nmasinachi Agada, Lydia Grossman, and Sadie Williams
Women make up about half of the agricultural workforce in developing countries, so the fight for gender equality is an essential step in accomplishing SDG 2 (Zero Hunger). However, they continue to face significant barriers, including limited access to markets and supply chains, capital, legal recourse (e.g. legal representation and bias in court systems), and credit and agricultural inputs (e.g. technology needed to plant and harvest crops).
In Ethiopia, the World Bank, the Ethiopian government, community leaders, local stakeholders, and other partners are working collectively to codify and guarantee women’s land rights, taking on several barriers with the Sustainable Land Management Project (SLMP). This project, which expands upon the Ethiopian government’s land certification program, offers an example of a successful strategy for expanding women’s access to land ownership, which can have long-standing impacts on livelihoods, food security, and self-sufficiency of households.
In Ethiopia, land ownership has long been tenuous. Using surveys and interviews with neighbors and community leaders to ascertain rightful land ownership, the Ethiopian government is providing both male and female landowners with land certificates – proof of land ownership and, by extension, the ability to sue any infringers in court. Land tenure programs such as this one are instrumental in achieving the SDG target for reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources and access to ownership and control over land, financial services, and natural resources. The SLMP aimed to issue 70,000 first-level land certificates in Ethiopia to increase incentives for landowners to invest in sustainable land management practices. It issued 60,000 certificates, surveyed 230,000 additional parcels, and titled over 5,000 parcels of communal lands. Over 70% of households receiving second-level landholding certificates were women. Securing legal land rights over agricultural land and increasing the proportion of women who are owners or right-bearers of agricultural land directly supports this target and the larger goal of gender equality.
In addition to the direct contribution towards gender equality, the land certification program has positive impacts on agricultural productivity in the region. With the establishment of legal land rights, women are encouraged to integrate more sustainable practices on their land, including planting trees and implementing practices to prevent soil erosion such as terracing. One female head of household reported that she felt more motivated to farm her land knowing that she had the legal proof that she owned the land and the crops farmed on it. This is one of many anecdotal pieces of evidence that demonstrate the direct impact of secure land rights on agricultural activities. The issuing of land certificates particularly benefited women because it conferred married women equal rights as landholders with their husbands. The benefits of codifying and expanding property rights are further reinforced by academic studies that found that land certification had a positive impact on agricultural productivity, particularly for female-headed households. This offers evidence for best practices for eliminating the socioeconomic barriers women face in rural areas and food insecurity.
Some key challenges in scaling up this project include local mistrust in scientific surveying techniques, dissent over the rightful landowner, and the length of time it may take to survey land, talk to neighbors, and confirm legal ownership. An additional challenge comes when an extension of formal legal land rights conflicts with existing customary land rights. In cases where traditional cultural practice does not grant land ownership to women, formal land provisions have proven difficult to enforce. Community buy-in is therefore central to the success of land tenure programs. Organizations must work with community leaders, women’s groups, and local NGOs to design projects, monitor results, and ensure that project activities are benefitting target populations rather than placing additional burdens on them.
There are also questions of whether projects should focus solely on property rights, or if there are other access barriers that should be addressed simultaneously for women’s property rights to yield full benefits. For example, a study involving Nigerian women found that poor land ownership rights, poor access to credit, and limited access to education and extension services must be addressed to significantly improve women’s agricultural productivity.
The World Bank-funded land certification program in Ethiopia offers valuable lessons for the Food Systems Summit 2021 by demonstrating how addressing women’s issues can have a positive and direct impact on agricultural productivity and food insecurity. While expanding land rights globally comes with many challenges, Ethiopia’s land certification program offers a promising pathway for building a sustainable and equitable food system in which landowners feel secure and motivated to adopt sustainable practices.
This article was authored by Nmasinachi Agada, Lydia Grossman, and Sadie Williams. Agada, Grossman and Williams are M.A. students in the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University.
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 The World Bank, 2020, Project Performance Assessment Report: Ethiopia: Sustainable Land Management Project I and II, Report No. 153559, http://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/126731603826296434/pdf/Ethiopia-Sustainable-Land-Management-Project-I-and-II.pdf, 27.
 Ibid., 46.
 The World Bank, 2015, “Increasing Women’s Access to Land, Approaches that Work.”
 Victoria Stanley, 2017, “Let’s work together to make land rights for women a reality,” World Bank Blogs, accessed 25 October 2020.
 The World Bank, 2020, Project Performance Assessment Report: Ethiopia: Sustainable Land Management Project I and II, Report No. 153559, 12.
 Mintewab Bezabih, Stein Holden, and Andrea Mannberg, 2016, “The role of land certification in reducing gaps in productivity between male- and female-owned farms in rural Ethiopia,” Taylor and Francis, accessed 25 October 2020, http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/64515/1/Bezabih_The_Role_of_Land_Certification.pdf.
 S.F. Joireman, 2008, “The Mystery of Capital Formation in Sub-Saharan Africa: Women, Property Rights and Customary Law,” World Development 36, no. 7, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305750X08000521, 1238.
 Nuhu et. al, 2014, “Barriers to women participation in agricultural development in Bauchi Local Government area of Bauchi State, Nigeria,” Agriculture and Biology Journal of North America 5 (4) https://www.scihub.org/ABJNA/PDF/2014/4/ABJNA-5-4-166-174.pdf, 166.