Changing male attitudes ensure Sotho women get access to land

December 13, 2020
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In the southern African country of Lesotho, women have always had problems to access land, especially after the death of their husbands.

Resultantly, most land rights movements and advocates like the Women and Law in Southern Africa (WILSA) have, admittedly so, been championed by women.

But this time around, a women land rights initiative has had an unusual champion-a male who  voluntarily allocated one of his farms to his widowed sister-in-law sister-in-law.

The move by 35 year-old Teboho Khati, has defied traditional stereotypes and is seen as a game changer after he transferred title deeds of one of his farms to ‘Maliteboho Khati after witnessing her hardships following the death of her husband.

‘Maliteboho and her husband did not own farming land prior to the latter’s untimely death three years ago.

All ‘Maliteboho had under her name was a small piece of residential land and two rondavel houses constructed by her husband. The unemployed widow survived on a shoe-string budget; depending entirely on menial jobs which are not easy to come.

However, ‘Maliteboho’s gods smiled on her in August this year when her brother-in-law surprised her with a piece of land.

According to gender and human rights international expert Alda Facio, women make up on average less than 20 percent of the world’s landholders.  This is despite that up to 70 percent of employed women in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia work in agriculture.

Facio says discriminatory laws and social norms undercut women’s access to the trans formative power of land.

“Yet despite women’s crucial role in agriculture, food production, and land-based livelihood, there is no consistent national or global data on the full scope of women’s land rights or access to land to enable them to monitor and enforce their rights,” Facio said.

She adds: “In the absence of secure tenure rights, women may be excluded from decisions about the sale or lease of their land, have no claim to compensation when the land is taken by an investor, corporation, or the government”.

In most cases, Facio says women are ejected from their home upon the death of a husband in the absence of secure tenure rights.

For ‘Maliteboho, not only did she get to keep the residential place her husband left in her care; she gained a whole piece of farm land.

Land title deeds was transferred to ‘Maliteboho in August this year during a public gathering organised by the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) – an agency tasked with the implementation of the bi-national multi-billion water project in Lesotho.

The multi-phased project entails harnessing the waters of the Senqu/Orange River in the Lesotho highlands through the construction of a series of dams for the mutual benefit of Lesotho and South Africa.

Phase II of the LHWP is currently in progress in Mokhotlong, Lesotho. The bilateral project which is estimated to cost at least M23 billion, is expected to provide about 3 000 jobs at the peak of its operations.

The water transfer component of Phase II comprises an approximately 165m high concrete faced rock fill Dam at Polihali downstream of the confluence of the Khubelu and Senqu (Orange) Rivers and an approximately 38km long concrete-lined gravity tunnel connecting the Polihali reservoir to the Katse reservoir.

Other Phase II activities include advance infrastructure (roads, accommodation, power lines and telecommunication) and the implementation of environmental and social mitigating measures. Affected communities will be compensated for loss of property.

In August this year, individuals whose assets have been affected by the water project will be compensated.

‘Maliteboho is one of the thousands of the affected individuals whose livelihood and that of her three children will be improved, thanks to her brother-in-law.

“My father-in-law was in a polygamous marriage. He had three wives. My husband came from the third wife. Both my father-in-law and his wives are now dead,” Ms Khati says she struggles to fight tears helplessly rolling down her brown chicks.

At the time of his death, Ms Khati’s father-in-law had not allocated arable land to his youngest wife, leaving ‘Maliteboho with no land to farm and produce food for her family.

However, senior wives had lands registered under their names and when they died, their sons inherited the farms. One of those sons is Khati.

Unlike in many parts of the country and in the African continent where social norms dictates that only men can lay claim to land, Khati became a hero in his village by voluntarily allocating land to his sister-in-law.

“There was a public gathering called by the authority (LHDA) in my village, Ha Bolomo, Mokhotlong. I initially did not want to attend the gathering because I did not have any assets that would be affected by the construction of the dam,” Ms Khati said.

But Khati insisted that she attends the gathering. He however did not indicate his real reason for his desperate need to have her sister-in-law attend the public gathering.

Hesitantly, ‘Maliteboho joined a handful of women in her village as they all walked together to a public gathering location.

“My brother-in-law informed the authority that he wanted one of his farms to be registered under my name. I was shocked because I never asked him to do so and in fact, no one had pleaded with him on my behalf. He voluntarily allocated the land to me and told me to use the compensation money to look after my family,” ‘Maliteboho Khati said.

She added: “I am happy. I don’t know what to say because that land is now registered under my name and I am now one of the beneficiaries of this water project. I have been given a second chance in life”.

Sadly, ‘Maliteboho’s positive story is only a drop in the ocean.

In a study titled, Womens Rights and Participation – Including Womens Access to Land and Inheritance, and the Role of Lobbying and Grassroots Organizations in Lesotho done by researcher Matashane-Marite, women’s access to land and inheritance in Lesotho is hindered by the gender stereotypes that women face in the region.

“The Land Act gives women the right to acquire and hold land in their own names as well as the right to inherit it like anybody else. This law does however discriminate against women in that, although widows retain the rights of inheritance to their late husbands’ property, they are stripped of that right on re-marriage. The land allocation committees, although administering a statutory law, still apply customary law principles in land allocation,” Marite said.

Although women’s access to land in Lesotho is protected by the Constitution, Marite says the constitution’s major flaw is Section 18.

“This section provides for freedom from all forms of discrimination but qualifies this right by providing that this section will not apply in furtherance of customary law principles,” Marite said, adding these provisions are obviously unfair against women.

Since these provisions deny women the opportunity of equality with men, Marite says they contribute to stifling the economic development of the country.

Change in mindsets and attitudes

Traditional leader and Leribe Principal Chief Joel Motšoane wants this to be a thing of the past and has taken rather an unpopular stand on the women’s land rights issue.

Chief Motšoane says denying women their rights to owning land is part of a broader gender-based violence meted out by men who “want to show off their power”.

He says everyone’s right to own land, whether male or female, must be respected.

“We must recognize that we are all human beings and no one deserves to be treated as a lesser human being because of their gender,” Chief Motšoane said.

He says the customary practices have over the years denied women the same power which their male counterparts have and that in most cases are undermined even in situations where they can handle matters better than men.

“Just because she is a woman does not give anyone a right to undermine, abuse and sideline her in major decisions affecting her household and its wealth.

“My position on women’s customary land rights has made me unpopular with some of my fellow men but I still maintain my stand and encourage us all to distinctively draw a line between tradition practices and the law itself. Tradition is tradition and the law is law.

“We need to harmonize those two and ensure that they work together for the good of our people. Gatekeepers and families should not hide behind the tradition when pursuing their agenda to violate women’s customary land rights,” he said.

Chief Motšoane stressed that “women’s customary land rights is human rights issue.”

Facio shares the same sentiments with Chief Motšoane.

“Women’s equal rights to land and property are grounded in core human rights instruments, including the Universal Deceleration on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

“As established by international standards, women have the right to equality in the enjoyment of all their rights, including the right to access, use, inherit, control, and own land.  To achieve gender equality, States should fulfill their obligation to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women,” Facio said.

In 2010, the Lesotho parliament enacted the Land Act which seeks to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women’s rights to access and own land. Prior to this act, women in Lesotho were regarded as minors and could not have title deeds registered in their names.

In an interview this week, WILSA executive director Advocate Libakiso Matlho says she is happy that men like Khati and Chief Motšoane were championing women’s customary land rights.

“The actions of this young man is a clear indication that the activism work that we have been doing for many years is now paying off,” Adv Matlho said.

Traditionally, Adv Matlho says men regard themselves as heads of families and rightful inheritors of land and property under customary law.

She says most of these traditionalists do not have respect for women’s rights which include land rights and that her organisation is always happy to use ordinary male women’s rights champions to drive the message home.

“In most cases, WILSA uses men like him (Khati) to champion women’s rights and refer to such men as living examples of what it means to allow women to exercise their rights. Using men as champions to women rights is a strategic way of making sure that women and men receive the intended message. Most men perceive women rights activism as a war peddled against male species and having men championing for women rights help other men understand the message better than when it is being delivered by their women.

“At times we will be talking to hardcore traditionalists who want nothing to do with women’s rights and the minute they see and hear their fellow men championing these rights, they start warming up to the idea and slowly start letting go of harmful practices that violate women’s rights. Owning land improves women’s economic participation, either residential or farm land. Anyone who owns land as a lucrative asset can use such assets to better their lives by venturing into business and giving women access to land help them improve their lives and those of their families,” Adv Matlho said.

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