Women must seize the moment

Amid all the noise and analysis about last month’s vote confirming a policy of land expropriation without compensation, very little has been said about women. This must surely change as women are an integral part of agricultural production and food security in our country.

Since the dawn of our democracy, a pro-poor land reform programme has not been implemented successfully. Even by government’s own admission, land restitution has been a dismal failure.

For the Rural Women’s Assembly, last month’s vote brings new hope for a change in people’s access to land in South Africa – for black people in general, and women in particular. It is a great moment, but it can just as easily become dead in the water for the oppressed if we do not seize it correctly or if we repeat the mistakes that have caused the failures to date.

In South Africa, women make up 43% of the agricultural labour force. They are close to half of the workers on farms, in cellars, abattoirs, processing factories or markets. When it comes to small-scale farming, 69% of these farmers are women. They are the ones who complement the local market of food production in our communities.

Overall in Africa, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, women produce up to 80% of food on the continent for personal use and to sell. Women play key roles as producers of food, managers of natural resources, income earners, and main caregivers of their families and communities.

A reality of the South African countryside is that female-headed households feature prominently as rural men historically migrate due to a lack of employment and other income-generating opportunities.

This trend persists, and herein lies the initial tier of hope that the radical amendment to the property clause may portend – hope for the future of the household; a new dream to break the cycle of poverty for the daughters and sons in our rural communities; and land that can ensure we are food secure and properly sheltered, and which can stem this migration to urban centres.

But for many mothers and daughters, this dream will be shattered if they continue to have limited decision-making power and control over how to use the land or its outputs. As it is now, women rarely own the land they are working on, or have poor tenure security and rights to the land. Farmers Weekly magazine reports that female farmers in the country are, for the most part, “producing relatively small volumes of produce on relatively small plots of land”.

While the Constitution and legal system may stipulate gender equality in access to land, customary legal arrangements and laws on marriage, divorce and inheritance can at times discriminate against women and daughters, preventing them from owning land.

This is part of the double-edged expropriation without compensation sword that black women have suffered since colonial invasion.

And it’s not only about equitable ownership and access to land. Gender-based discrimination often stops rural women from attaining equitable access to education, productive resources, technologies, capital and support services, as well as the power to make decisions.

Since 2015, the Rural Women’s Assembly has championed the one woman, one hectare of land campaign that was first proposed by the Commission for Gender Equality. It calls for the state to allocate one hectare of land for agricultural use to rural female-headed households since we believe there is a direct link between women’s right to land, economic empowerment, food security and poverty reduction. Where women have land, their families are generally better nourished, better educated and better able to break cycle of poverty.

As government’s policy on land expropriation shifts, the Rural Women’s Assembly calls for women in farming communities to be prioritised in the land restitution programme. At the same time, a more enabling environment should be created for women to fully and more efficiently participate in agricultural markets.

This has to involve removing legal and cultural barriers to ownership and access to land, information and extension services, inputs and other resources.

More women are also needed in agricultural education and training, research and extension services, agritechnology, finance, and agricultural policy-making and implementation.

The progress of land distribution has been slow, and many of the farms so far handed to rural beneficiaries have not succeeded because government has failed to provide support.

For land expropriation without compensation to succeed and bring about change, women will require land with water, as well as financial, technical and extension support. Agriculture in black rural areas requires investment for the development of small-scale producers.

Now is the time for women to take centre stage in shaping not only the debate, but also the strategies and policies that will flow from the new imaginings around land restitution.

Jwayi is the regional coordinator in the Free State for the Rural Women’s Assembly, a self-organised network of national rural women’s movements, assemblies, grass roots organisations and chapters across 10 countries in the Southern African Development Community

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