Taking stock of women’s land rights in the wake of COVID-19 | Land Portal

How will you feel when you are discriminated against and denied privileges that other people enjoy? What will be your reaction? Have you asked yourself why indigenous peoples around the world feel they are denied their rights and left behind in development agenda? To answer all this, I had to look at the food security and tenure rights for indigenous women / communities in Africa thirteen years since the establishment of the International Rural Women’s Day.

The International Day of Rural Women was created in 1995 by civil society organizations at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, and was declared an official UN Day in October 15 2007 by the UN General Assembly in its resolution 62/136 of 18 December 2007. Which recognizes “the critical role and contribution of rural women, including indigenous women, in enhancing agricultural and rural development, improving food security and eradicating rural poverty.”

This year on the International Day of Rural Women (15 October), the spotlight is on the urgent need for Building rural women’s resilience in the wake of COVID-19, for “building back better” by strengthening rural women’s sustainable livelihoods and wellbeing.

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the vulnerability of indigenous communities to land and food security. As we celebrate thirteen years since the establishment of the International Day of Rural Women, it’s key to discuss land matters and how the women in indigenous communities can play a vital role when it comes to tenure security and food security in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic. 

Following my engagement with the rural women in the African continent, I have learnt that women living in the rural areas, including indigenous women, often lack access to information yet they have the ability to handle some of the vital issues that affect their communities, especially food security. What they need is capacity building on how best they can engage to claim their rights. 

The year 2020 marks the 25th anniversary since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995).  We have five years to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It is also 10 years since the adoption of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women – known as UN Women. Many gains have been made by African Governments to ensure gender equality is achieved. However, a lot still needs to be done to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality.  

Food security 

Without land and secure tenure, a woman cannot access credit in financial institutions. If tenure is secure, it enables increased productivity and increased food security.  According to agenda 2063   of the African Union, 30% of the documented land rights for women in Africa should be achieved by 2025 to progress toward attaining gender equality.  In sub-Saharan Africa, women’s access to and control over land in Africa remains minimal even though women contribute 60-80% of the labor used to produce food for both household consumption and sale.

The African heads of states endorsed the Framework and Guidelines (F&G) on Land Policy in Africa  endorsed in 2009 on Land Issues, and Challenges constitute the African Union agenda on land.  Implementation of this agenda along with the Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT). Will contribute to AU efforts towards the eradication of hunger and poverty based on the principles of sustainable development and the recognition of centrality of land by promoting secure rights and equitable access to land by women.

On 30 January 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. The spread of COVID -19 and future pandemics has and will continue to exacerbate an already critical situation for many indigenous peoples, especially women, children and the elderly. The level of inequalities and discrimination is high. There is fear that many women living in rural areas will die, not only from the virus itself but also from conflicts and violence, linked to the scarcity of resources, especially drinking water and sources of nutrition. 

We have seen cases of increased domestic violence, evictions and land grabbing during COVID 19. Women are unable to go to market to sell their produce due to strict measures imposed by governments as a way to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus. However, indigenous women are often the most disadvantaged members of their communities because of their limited access to education, assets and credit, and their exclusion from decision-making processes.

Tenure security  

Indigenous-peoples live in both urban and rural locals and account today for over 476 million individuals spread across 90 countries in the world, accounting for 6.2% of the global population. With the COVID-19 crisis, we have seen many indigenous communities are already suffering the effects of economic and social inequalities, in many cases leading to malnutrition and without access to clean water or health care, which can increase vulnerability to infectious diseases.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the General Assembly on Sep. 13, 2007, establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity, well-being and rights of the world’s indigenous peoples. The the-sustainable development goals (SDG) and indigenous peoples  including 169 targets has mentioned “indigenous people “ Goal 2 on hunger and food security target 2:3 states that by 2030 the agricultural productively and income of the small scale farmers in particular women, Indigenous communities should have secure access to land and other productive resources  to boost their livelihood.  In addition, target 1.4. reads: “By 2030, ensure that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property, inheritance and natural resources.

The civil society groups and other non-state actors have tirelessly been pushing for the implementation of the goals related to land and gender to ensure women are not left behind.  There is need to have an inclusive approach to ensure that the African governments implement the frameworks on tenure security specifically on women’s land rights, including for indigenous communities.  According to FAO, there is a need to address the gender gap when it comes to tenure security for women, including indigenous women, which has been demonstrated by the level of inequality that has been revealed during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It is therefore imperative for the member states and the international community to put indigenous peoples, especially women, at the center of the response to address the global crisis of COVID 19, looking at their specific needs and priorities.  Indigenous peoples, including women, have strong traditional practices to confront the spread of diseases, but they need their territorial and other rights to be fully respected in order to effectively exercise that power. 

According to ILO Convention 169, few African and Asian countries have ratified legal frameworks providing for the recognition and protection of indigenous peoples’ lands.   There are only 23  countries that have ratified the framework, most of them in Latin America. Where legal frameworks exist, the implementation is very weak noting that Indigenous peoples in many cases share collective land rights, but their rights to the land is not properly documented or officially recognized. Therefore, indigenous peoples’ lands are often seen as fertile ground for natural resource exploitation when there is no formal documentation registered for their use or occupation of the land. 

Finally, lockdowns and restrictions on movement have negatively affected rural women´s rights to adequate food, as well as their right to land and natural resources, affecting disproportionally those who already face food insecurity because of land grabbing and the loss of their territories.


For governments to build back better there is the need to include indigenous peoples including women living in the rural areas in their countries at the center of the recovery process for COVID-19 cases. The indigenous territorial protection is key during this critical time. Linked to this, activities based on natural resource extraction and exploitation, including mining, oil and gas, and logging activities as well as industrial agriculture, should be suspended. Finally, the displacement of indigenous peoples from their lands; and diminishing or using indigenous lands for military activities should be stopped. 


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