Legal Aid

Woman hoeing field

TANZANIA: Patriarchial culture and traditions often impede full recognition of women’s legal rights to land.
Source: © 2007 S. Wallace/World Bank

Can community paralegals help women exercise their land rights?

Rights to land can be hard to come by when you’re a woman in the developing world. In Africa south of the Sahara, women make up nearly 50 percent of the agricultural workforce. But their hold on the land they farm is tenuous at best and nonexistent at worst. In 2012 IFPRI researchers launched a study with partners in Tanzania and Uganda to assess whether community-based legal aid programs are an effective way to help women obtain land rights.

Cultural Norms

In some cases, women lack rights to land in spite of laws that support their claims. Tanzania and Uganda, for example, passed national laws strengthening women’s land rights in the 1990s, but communities often fail to enforce them. “In our interviews,” says Lucy Billings, a Mickey Leland Hunger Fellow with IFPRI, “the most-cited impediment to women’s owning land was patriarchal culture.”

Tanzanian and Ugandan women traditionally leave their birth homes and go to their husbands’ clans when they marry, notes Billings. But they are often unable to inherit land, because they’re seen as outsiders or visitors both in their birth homes and in their marital homes. If a woman’s husband dies or she gets divorced, she may be chased from her home by members of her husband’s family who wish to reclaim the land. “A woman may be able to use family land,” says Billings, “but may never be an owner or have security of use.” Without secure land rights, women have trouble supporting themselves and feeding their children.

Bridging the Gap

To help bridge the gap between the law and on-the-ground practices, nongovernmental legal aid organizations, such as the Uganda Land Alliance and the Tanzania Women Lawyers Association, have trained local paralegals to educate rural communities about land rights. The paralegals also mediate conflicts and help victims who have been unjustly pushed off their land seek help from local tribunals.

Paralegals, who provide these services on a volunteer basis, come from within the local communities. “That’s important because many of these conflicts are very personal, and people don’t feel comfortable airing their dirty laundry in front of strangers,” says Valerie Mueller, an IFPRI research fellow. “You need to find people who are accepted by village authorities so that those officials will buy into decisions.”

In the first phase of the project, researchers studied existing community-based legal aid programs in Tanzania and Uganda. In the next phase of the project, a new community-based legal aid program will be launched in Tanzania’s Kagera region. Billings, Mueller, and others will evaluate women’s land rights and legal knowledge in the area before and after the program is established. “Although there are a lot of positive anecdotes, there’s almost no quantitative evidence about whether these programs actually work,” says Mueller. The researchers will also analyze challenges to scaling up such programs, which include providing paralegals with adequate training at a reasonable cost and minimizing the dropout rate.

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