As soon as Ann Ondaye’s husband died, his two brothers took all the Kenyan widow’s possessions: the television, bicycle, a fishing boat and nets and even her late husband’s trousers.
Ondaye and her three young daughters were allowed to remain in their home in western Kenya’s Homa Bay for six years while she nursed her late husband’s mother.
But when her mother-in-law died in 2006, the brothers returned to oust Ondaye from her matrimonial home, saying her children were not entitled to inherit their father’s land because they were girls.
With support from elders in her husband’s Luo community and women activists, Ondaye fought to stay on the 2.5 hectare plot, which is in the names of her late husband and his father.
“Being that I know my rights, I know where to go, I know where to report, I am still on the land,” said Ondaye, 46, who has trained as a paralegal to support other women’s land claims.
“I am trying to get the title deed and then divide the land among my girls – for the first time in Luo culture,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Ondaye is one of hundreds of women from more than 20 African countries meeting in Tanzania this week to write a charter of demands to improve their access to and control over land.
The fittest among them will climb to the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, on Sunday to launch the charter, calling on African governments to implement it.
Improving women’s land rights is key to reducing poverty and exposure to domestic violence, as well as providing collateral for loans and security in old age, campaigners say.
Recognising the importance of the issue, the African Union is campaigning for 30 percent of registered land to be owned by women by 2025.
“Land is everything in human life,” Ondaye said, wearing a grey T-shirt with ‘Women to Kilimanjaro’ emblazoned on it.
“Land is where you live; you have your shelter. Land is where you till; you have food security.”
More than 70 percent of Kenyan women live in rural areas, said Ruth Masime, ActionAid’s head of policy in Kenya, yet only one percent of women in Kenya are registered land owners.
More than 40,000 Kenyan women came together to draw up a charter for Kenyan women, which they presented to officials on Thursday, calling for better representation in land institutions and more transparent administration.
Muhammed Swazuri, chairman of Kenya’s National Land Commission, an independent government body set up to manage public land and investigate historical injustices, said the women’s demands had already been addressed in legislation.
“Let’s concentrate more on the obstacles that are making implementation difficult. And these are attitudes,” he said.
Some rural women support the status quo, for example, declining offers to have their names on title deeds, he said.
In sub-Saharan Africa, property is often owned by the community, and culture dictates that men own land while women access it through male relatives, such as fathers or husbands.
On average, sub-Saharan women represent 15 percent of agricultural land owners, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said in 2010, a few percentage points better than in Asia and slightly lower than in Latin America.
“We have progressive laws (but)… the government has not been very gender sensitive,” ActionAid’s Masime said, calling for the introduction of mobile land courts to bring justice to villages.
Poor, uneducated rural women usually do not understand the law, speak English or have the money to file cases in urban courts, she said.
“Women should not go to our offices and be treated as beggars,” Kenya’s lands minister, Jacob Kaimenyi, told the campaigners, amid ululation and cheers.
“I support totally all of your demands and we will implement them gradually.”