Dr Safiatou Saidou, from Cameroon, won the Network of Excellence on Land Governance in Africa, Central Africa Node award, which recognizes the best master’s degree in land issues in Central Africa. She is committed to guaranteeing the rights of women to access land in Cameroon through the reform of legislative, regulatory and social standards.
What examples have you seen of innovative approaches to protecting and promoting women’s land rights, and how can these be scaled up and replicated in other contexts?
To my knowledge, recent innovative approaches in the northern zone of Cameroon are mostly centred around advocacy, lobbying and financial contributions to promote women’s land rights. Various NGOs and Associations have carried out several actions in favour of women in this direction. These include the CIGs, which are widespread in all the villages, which were initiated to respond to the need to constitute a common workforce based on proximity criteria whose aim, in the agricultural field, is to increase production. It is in this wake that to circumvent the discrimination of women in access to land; some women have decided to form a GIC; which increases their possibility of sustainably exploiting plots.
In addition to the security crisis linked to boko haram in this region, international NGOs such as NRC, OCHA and other local organizations such as ALVF, ALDEPA, etc., support women in accessing land through information sessions on the security of land transactions and through legal assistance to those who encounter problems of land disputes. This support is observed much more in Logone and Chari, Mayo-Sava and Mayo-Tsanaga, the localities most affected by the security crisis. Thus, a new class of women is emerging and becoming more and more emancipated in this field. The picture is not totally black as is often thought because there are women who, personally and collectively, were able to gain access to large secure lands to improve their agricultural income. With these convincing results, these different approaches can be considered as reproducible best practices.
What are the biggest challenges women face in accessing and owning land in your country/region?
In my opinion, the biggest challenges in the northern zone of Cameroon are at the level of negative perceptions vis-à-vis women landowners and securing their rights. Despite the evolution of land rights, the marginalization of women persists. They can, in principle, acquire the land they want to exploit without a blockage relating to gender. But this marginalization of women in rural areas is well anchored in the socio-mental and socio-cultural universe of the populations, although today, Cameroonian law gives women the possibility of acquiring and owning land. While women have the possibility of accessing land through purchase, which is becoming the increasingly widespread mode of land transactions, the majority of them occupy marginal land.
I can also mention marital status, which remains decisive for women’s access to land. In most cases, they risk losing their rights in the event of divorce, widowhood or the migration of their husband. To this, I must add that the inheritance of land is not shared equally between men and women. Women’s rights to land inheritance are affected by cultural norms and rules. For example, in cultures where land rights pass through men (patrilineal) and where women move in with their husbands upon marriage (patrilocal), a woman will rarely inherit land rights from her late husband because she is considered « foreign » to the bloodline of the late husband.
Furthermore, I observe that marriage constitutes a brake on the purchase of land by women. Indeed, married women in the Far North region of Cameroon do not have the same freedom as single people, divorcees or widows to appropriate land.
Moreover, because of their illiteracy and ignorance, the majority of women are unaware of the regulatory provisions allowing them to assert their rights to own and acquire or enjoy the land. Even when they know them, they hesitate to use them so as not to challenge social rules, but also and above all, for fear of being divorced or even stigmatised. Stigma thus leads to the persistence of traditional practices for women’s access to land through purchase, inheritance and donation within families. The same applies to the increase in the purchase of land in secret for fear of reprisals from the spouse.
In the different regions of Cameroon, women who wish to own land face real difficulties; how to approach the land rights of women in rural Cameroon?
In my opinion, the texts of laws applicable in Cameroon in land matters are multiple and multifaceted, outdated and difficult to interpret. They do not specifically mention women’s access to land. Land security for all and especially for women, necessarily implies the vote by the state authorities, new texts (drafting and voting of a single Land Code) and laws as well as the conformity of specific existing legal frameworks (Code of people and family).
In addition to involving women in local land management bodies, it is also important, in my opinion, to promote women’s full citizenship, and respect for their rights and facilitate women’s access to land ownership by lifting different barriers related to the weight of tradition and social norms.
How can land governance/land policy be made more gender sensitive and inclusive, and what steps can be taken?
I think that the development and implementation of a communication plan for the appropriation of laws relating to land ownership would make it possible to make everyone aware, and in particular women, that securing land is a factor important for development. They will educate and raise awareness on a large scale and also improve general knowledge of land laws. The women, who constitute more than half of the population of Cameroon, will then be able to understand their rights and be able to defend them. This will allow them to contribute considerably and effectively to development. Similarly, through awareness raising and information, legal illiteracy will be reduced,
Furthermore, socio-economic and incentive measures can be taken to increase women’s access to land. In land matters, the inequality between the male and female sexes is greatly increased because, despite the existence of texts and political efforts, even intellectual women continue to be considered inferior in the eyes of tradition. Having limited resources, women cannot acquire land. To improve its status and enable it to have equal access to the landed heritage as a man, it is necessary, apart from its information, education and permanent dialogue, to take specific measures concerning it on the socio-political and economic.
I will end by adding that support for creating and revitalising women’s groups can also be considered. Women in groups will be stronger; their combined efforts will allow them to sow more land and consequently have more financial means and be able to benefit from significant credits. It will be wise to strengthen those that already exist through technical and financial support and encourage and help create such groups in areas where they do not exist. The good organization of these groups and their cohesion will enable them to easily delegate their representatives to decision-making bodies on the issue of land management and to organize visits to exchange experiences between groups.
What advice would you give to young women wanting to pursue a land governance career?
I would advise them to familiarize themselves with the texts and laws in force, to be familiar with the sociological and political issues on the ground, but also to develop local awareness-raising strategies to support women in the process of development in land matters. . In this, they can not only contribute at their level to the development of knowledge on land but also to be able to support decision-making in their communities.