Lusaka - When Zambian Lands Minister Judith Kapijimpanga announced recently that government had directed local authorities to intensify land allocation to women with immediate effect, there was general approval.
When she urged the usually truculent traditional rulers to encourage women to own land of which 90 percent was under-utilised, the women's movements said they had scored a victory.
But not everyone is optimistic. The Zambia National Land Alliance, a non-governmental organisation reviewing the land policy, says all this sounds well, but will be a long time coming.
The draft National Land Policy, which includes a commitment to ensuring that 30 percent of demarcated land goes to women, is a good document said Joseph Mbinji of the alliance. But there is much work to be done, including publicity, to make this a reality for women, he added.
"We have been talking about land ownership for women for a long time. This is not the first time, but we have not resolved the impediments to women owning land, or their insecure tenure."
He said women are often unaware when government is selling land because the fact is normally published in newspapers only available along the railway line and in English, which many cannot read. Women also do not have they means to purchase land. There is also a perception that land ownership is externally driven and is not necessarily a "felt need" of women.
Zambia has a two-tier land system, state and customary. The government holds state land which is supposed to be six percent of the total land available for production. The chiefs and tribal heads hold customary land, which is 90 percent of arable land. They allocate land to their subjects and increasingly to investors.
"There is a difference between the urban woman who is able to buy state land and has the urge to own that land and the rural woman who lives on tribal land whose urge for ownership is not strong," said Emma Nalishuwa, a consultant on land use.
In rural areas, married women have access to land for farming through their husbands. In the event of divorce or widowhood, they may continue to use the land but will not inherit it. It is unheard of for a married woman to be given land in her own right. Rural women do not challenge their unequal position under customary law.
Ironically, women chiefs do not act differently from their male counterparts in administering land, Nalishuwa says.
"We have to careful here that we are not alienating them further by forcing them to own land and bringing them into conflict with the norms and ways of their villages by upsetting the status quo."
But the recent Expert Group Meeting on Land Tenure Systems and Sustainable Development in Southern Africa said it was important that both rural and urban women were informed that land ownership was a human right to which women were entitled.
Henry Machina, co-ordinator of the Alliance, said while in theory the 1995 Land Act does not discriminate against women, it ignores the historical reality of an unequal society in which women have not owned land. Patrilineal customs do not assign women entitlement to land and there is poor administration of inheritance rights when it comes to women.
Even when a woman owned land, if she could not afford land administration costs and legal costs in case of disputes, she remained not only at a disadvantage, but also risked losing her land.
In the case of Saphina Tembo, an investor bought land in her village and fenced off the major river. Tembo had no water for herself, her vegetables or her cattle. Eventually she moved to a poorer section of the riverbed.
"I hear all about give women this and that but no one gives anything. Look here I have been chased off on my own land by a stranger. It is not thieves or crooks that gave this investor the land, it is the government, so where do I go?" she asked.
Machina says women like Tembo are right in questioning government because while the land policy mentions gender, it does not comprehensively address gender inequality in access to land. While the government is a signatory to a number of treaties including the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Southern African development Community Gender and Development declaration of 1997, it has not domesticated these instruments. "This raises serious questions about how serious our government is in enabling women realise their land rights".
He says with HIV and Aids taking its toll women find themselves at a loss when their spouses die because they are usually stripped of the land or it is sold off to buy medicine. "Food is produced by women so when they are incapacitated or unable to tend to the fields, families and in the process communities suffer food shortages. Yet it is absurd that women do not have the right to the means from which to feed their families."
Kapijimpanga said it was vital for food security and wealth creation that women have secure rights to land.