The question of women owning land in Tanzania has been a subject of intense debate in recent years taking into account their numerical strength and their valuable contribution to the mainstream development process of the country.
Since time immemorial, women, who constitute more than 50 percent of the country’s estimated population of 40 million people, have been denied usufruct rights and benefits from their inputs on land.
It is for this reason that non-governmental organizations and land rights activists have been pushing the government to ensure that women have secure land rights to their land as it is essential to address poverty and hunger in the country.
Like elsewhere in Africa, rural women throughout Tanzania contribute greatly to agricultural production and are highly dependent on agricultural sources of income.
Yet these women, who both contribute to and depend on agriculture, do not have secure land rights to the most important agricultural asset: land.
The Tanzania Women Lawyers Association (TAWLA) and land rights experts say when women have legal control over their land they can become investors in their family’s future and can ensure that their children’s needs are met.
However, the story is different in much of Tanzania. While women shoulder the burden of food production, they often don’t have secure rights to the land they farm.
Although they spent long hours tilling the fields, they are often barred from inheriting or owning those fields. This puts them at risk for losing that land if they lose their husband, father, or brother because of illness, violence, or migration. And losing the land often means losing their source of food, income, and shelter.
“Patriarchy has structurally excluded women from making political demands on land matters as they have no right of inheritance or ownership,” say researchers Frida Chale and Rose Ubwe of the Tanzania Home Economics Association (TAHEA).
“Findings have revealed that a woman under traditional norms has no rights to acquire land because of the inherent fear of transferring that land to another clan when she gets married,” say the researchers.
Since the majority of Tanzanian women in rural areas lack control over land, their work and contribution in agricultural production has many years been imperceptible.
“Land is the most basic and essential resource in all African societies and all countries depending on agricultural production for survival. In Africa food production is done by women. Yet, women, by tradition, are excluded from owning the land they till," notes The Minister for Lands, Housing and Human Settlements, Prof. Anna Tibaijuka.
“This exclusion has been continued by all contemporary African governments - depriving women of the most essential resource and making them into second-class citizens without any land rights and dependent on men,” she explains.
She says, however, that in Tanzania the land policy is clear that women are entitled for land ownership and any land transaction done by a husband without his wife's signature is considered null and void.
Few women in Tanzania own land due to numerous historical and cultural factors. Divorced or separated women do not have tyhe right to any portion of their husband's separate or ancestral land.
This lack of secure rights to agricultural land is especially damaging to wome outside of traditional households, such as women who are deserted, widowed, or whose husbands have multiple wives.
TAWLA activists say ownership of land is not enough as women must understand their rights as owners as well. They say illiterate women, in particular, might not understand that they own land in the first place and may unknowingly divest themselves of their rights to land.
"We must consider the empowerment of women as a condition for poverty alleviation for "women are able when empowered," the activists say.
The land rights experts say there are multiple benefits to be gained from women's ownership of land. In the first place holding land in her own name or jointly with her husband, gives a woman a secure right to land if she separates from her husaband, is deserted, or widowed.
Secondly, the experts contend, ownership of land gives a woman control over, and a continuing right to, a major source of income.
Connected to this benefit is a benefit to her children, as numerous studies have found that children directly benefit from improvements of their mother's income to a much greater extent than improvement to their father's income.
TAWLA concurs with land rights researchers that land ownership enhances a woman's ability to access credit as it gives her an asset that can be used as collateral.
"Land rights enhances a woman's respect and leverage within her family, and land ownership can qualify a woman for benefits under programmes that require beneficiaries to own land," say the researchers.
They say for these benefits to accrue to a woman, however, it is important that she knows she is an owner of land and understands the rights and obligations that accompany land ownership.
"The quality of land that women own and their access to other resources are also important factors that determine the positive impact that land ownership can have for women. Poor quality land does not have the same potential to enhance women\s live as fertile land," the land rights experts emphasise.
TAWLA, with a host other non-governmental organisations, in 1997 played a crucial role in promoting awareness of gender issues in relation to the 1998 Land Act which was passed by Parliament in February 1999.
In Tanzania the cumbersome bureaucratic system and the low level of understanding the Land Act have often discouraged the majority of women, particularly in the rural areas, to acquire land.
It is for this reason that TAWLA has teamed up with other women rights organisations to work with grassroots self-help groups in securing tenure for women, reversing evictions, securing titles, curbing disinheritance and fighting discriminatory land tenure policies.
The aim is to transform dominant social, political and cultural perceptions and practices that hinder or deny women's access, control and ownership of land and property.
NGOs should continue their already positive efforts to educate women about their legal rights, and encourage them to exercise these rights.
Furthermore, policy-makers should consider adopting the concept of co-ownership of marital property, which would grant both spouses equal rights to property acquired during marriage.
However, granting women formal rights to land does not improver their position if they are not aware of or do not understand their rights. The government should, therefore, adopt rules requiring both joint owners of land be present to sign documents for selling or mortgaging land.