In Nigeria, gender plays a critical role in land ownership. While women farmers contribute about 70% of food production in the country, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, land rights discrimination, fuelled by social, economic and cultural factors, affects their productivity.
The United Nations agency in 2011 said although women make up 43% of the global agricultural labour force, fewer women own, operate and manage valuable plots than men.
For farmers like Justina Ishaku in central Nigeria, migration has made the problem even more complicated. When she relocated from Kogi State to neighbouring Nasarawa State, she had hoped to start a farming business and have a better life after suffering losses from her oil trading business. That did not happen as planned.
In search of land, Ms Ishaku met a man who gave her one plot. She began cultivating melon for two years before saving enough to start leasing land each farming season. Yet, even with her money, members of her new community refused to lease to her as a woman. After Ms Ishaku decided to search through a man, she soon got up to six hectares.
Hundreds of kilometres away in Lagos, Nigeria’s economic capital, Dumola Sodeke was not that fortunate. Even with her father and uncle as fronts, she could not lease let alone buy land.
“My uncle and dad stood as fronts for me in getting land in Lagos, then I have a business partner who stood as a front for me in Ibadan and Abeokuta. They were able to help me get lands in these locations. It’s very difficult for them to sell or lease lands to women,” she said.
“There was one my uncle got for me, when they discovered it was a woman that owned it, the ‘Omo Oniles’ (land agents) raised the alarm, even after all my pleading and rolling on the floor, they did not listen to me. They rubbished me. It was really not easy, getting land for women is not easy.”
Nigeria’s limiting gender policy on land ownership
Many Nigerian communities still operate the traditional and family inheritance system of land ownership that gives preference to male children. By law, land in the country is owned by state governments, and control over them is exercised by the 36 governors.
A 2012 gender policy report by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development showed that in rural Nigeria, only 8.5% of the women own land compared to 38.1% men. In the relatively poor rural areas, 10.1% of women have access to land against 46.1% men.
In urban centres, 4.5% of the women have access to land while 49.5% of men own land. Amongst the urban poor population, 5.9% of the women have land compared to 28% of their male counterparts.
Underlying cultural diversity, the challenge of women having access to land differs across the country with the situation worse in the more conservative north than the south.
In the North-east, plagued by the jihadist Boko Haram insurgency, only 4% of women own land against 52.2% of men. In the North-west, which is also facing a severe security crisis caused by herders and the so-called bandits, 4.7% of women own land compared to 50.1% of men. In the North-central, the ratio is 7.9% against 41.2%.
In the South-east, 10.6% of women own land compared to men’s 38.1%; in the South-south, it is 10.9% versus 5.9%. Only the South-west had the women in ownership majority of 28.3% against 22.5% of men.
At the 2021 UN’s Food Systems Pre-Summit in Rome, leaders from Africa called on countries to transform food systems across all regions by prioritising women and youth in agricultural policies and finance.
The director for Africa at the International Food Policy Research Institute, Jemimah Njuki, said, “It’s one of the key issues that we have to grapple with: how to support women smallholder farmers, how to make sure they actually have the productive resources that they need to transform food systems, how to ensure they actually have right to the land that they cultivate.”
An estimated 54 million of Nigeria’s 78 million women are based in rural areas and make a living from land, according to the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. The numbers are likely to be higher today as that is based on a previous survey.
“It is 2021 and there is no reason so far for women not to own lands, they have the largest percentage of people working in agriculture in Nigeria , they have the knowledge to better adapt to adverse effects of Agriculture,” said Chiagozie Udeh, a climate change activist.
“Looking at Nigeria’s food insecurity and the effect of Covid 19, it is crucial that women own land both in the Southern and Northern parts of the country. Also customary and religious laws that prohibit women from inheriting land should be addressed,” he said.
Insecurity makes things worse
While the limited access to land has not been resolved, women face an additional problem today: insecurity.
Across swathes of the country, women who manage to own land have been forced in recent times to abandon them over safety concerns. Deadly herders and other criminals have attacked and killed thousands of farmers. While the pastoralists fight for land to graze cattle, kidnappers make a fortune abducting farmers and other residents. This has led to food shortages and unprecedented food inflation in the country.
Susan Godwin, a yam farmer, owned a 30-hectare farm back in her home in Tudun Adebu, in the North-central state of Nasarawa, but had to desert it after a communal clash between her community and a neighbouring community.
After the crisis, she was forced to relocate to the state capital, Lafia, where the community leader gave her one and a half hectare of land to farm.
Before the crisis, she was able to harvest 30 to 50 (100kg) bags of rice and 20 to 40 bags of groundnut and millet annually. Now, she is not able to access land due to lack of funds and restrictive cultural practices that deny her access to the land and adversely affected her productivity in the last eight years.
“Leasing land is very expensive in Lafia. In my community, you can rent a big piece of land (one hectare) for N10,000. But here, a piece of land of N20,000 is very small,” she said.
Currently, she cultivates groundnut, millet and maize while she exempts yam because it does not grow well in Lafia as in Tudun Adebu, her ancestral community.
Ms Isiaku, who struggled to lease land, said she will no longer visit the farm after some farmers were killed on their farms. According to her, herders threaten farmers on their farms regularly, which sometimes leads to loss of lives.
“I was on the farm sometime last month, and the herders entered my farm, they asked me to choose between my crops and my life. I watched their cows consume the entire crops. I was happy they didn’t hurt me,” she said.
Considering the two events, she said she will not visit her farm until the government steps in to protect farmers, especially women who do not have the ability to defend themselves.
“Some research has shown that women hold more traditional knowledge with water adaptation mechanisms of traditional farming practices that can enhance crop yield and help agriculture activities adapt to adverse conditions that can include flooding,” Mr Udeh said. “This is common knowledge because women are the majority players of the agricultural sector; about 50-70 percent of the sector is dominated by women.”
He argued that when women are allowed to own land, they will feel more comfortable to develop their farming businesses also they will have peace of mind and ownership to grow.
A public policy expert, Sam Amadi, said women issues around land ownership can be solved if there are positive changes in cultural activities through cultural education.
He noted that when beneficial government interventions are made through affirmative programs that provide land resources to women, the interventions can address issues of gender and land in Nigeria.