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

Written by Grace Ananda

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 the indigenous community in the world feel left behind in the development agenda? To answer all this, I had to look at the food security and tenure rights for indigenous women / community 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 15th 2007 by the UN General Assembly in its resolution 62/136(link is external) of 18 December 2007,   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 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 the indigenous community 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 continent, I have learnt that like the women living in the rural areas including the indigenous women are vulnerable in terms of access to information yet they have the ability to handle some of the vital issues that affect the communities especially food security. What they need is capacity building on how best they can engage with the right holders. 

The year 2020 marks the 25th anniversary since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action(link is external) (1995).  We have five years to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development(link is external). 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 Government to ensure gender equality is achieved. However, a lot 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, there is increase productivity and increase food security.  According to agenda 2063 (link is external)  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 contribute 60-80%(link is external) of the labor used to produce food for both household consumption and sale), women’s access to and control over land in Africa remains minimal

The African heads of states endorsed the Framework, Guidelines (F&G) on Land Policy in Africa (link is external) (VGGT) endorsed in 2009 on Land Issues, and Challenges constitute the African Union agenda on land. The VGGT 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 specifically women and children. The level of inequalities and discrimination is high. There is fear that many women living in the 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 multi-nutrition. 

We have had cases of increased domestic violence, evictions and land grab during covid 19. Women are unable to go to market to sell their produce due to strict measures imposed by the Government 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.

A look at the tenure security for The Indigenous women  

Indigenous-peoples(link is external) 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 covid 19 crisis, we have seen many indigenous communities are already suffering from malnutrition and immune-suppressive conditions, which can increase vulnerability to infectious diseases.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,(link is external) 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 17 sustainable development goals(link is external) including 169 targets has mentioned “indigenous people “ Goal 2 on hunger and food security target 2:3 states that by 2030 the agricultural productivity 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 societies and 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 a 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 the indigenous community.  According to FAO(link is external).There is need to address the gender gap when it comes to tenure security for women including the indigenous community this has been demonstrated by the level of inequality during covid 19 pandemic. 

It is therefore imperative for the member states and the international community to put the indigenous community especially women at the center of response looking at the specific needs and priorities in addressing the global outbreak of COVID 19.  The Indigenous peoples including women have good practice to stop the spread of the VIRUS, what they need is space for them exercise their power that is within them. 

According to ILO Convention 169(link is external), few African and Asian countries have ratified legal frameworks providing for the recognition and protection of indigenous peoples’ lands.   We have only 23(link is external)  countries who have ratified the framework. Where legal frameworks exist, the implementation is very weak noting that Indigenous peoples in many cases share collective land rights, but this ownership of the lands is not properly documented or officially recognized. Therefore, indigenous peoples’ lands are often seen as fertile ground for natural resource exploitation since there is no ‘visible’ 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, predominantly for those who already face food insecurity as a result 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, the suspension on extractive mining, oil, and logging activities and  industrial agriculture should be stopped. Finally, the removal of indigenous peoples from their lands; diminishing or using indigenous lands for military activity should be stopped. 


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