One plot at a time: Pastoralist women shaping the land ownership narrative

Some members of the local community residing on Kokwo Island in Lake Baringo on August 28, 2023.

Photo credit: Stanley Kimuge I Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • In West Pokot, Baringo, Marsabit, Isiolo, Samburu and Laikipia, women are increasingly getting access to and using land to produce their own food and generate income.
  • They are on the path towards realising financial independence.

We are at a trading centre in Kiwawa on the Kenya-Uganda border in Pokot North.

The place is a hive of activity. Beneath this bustle involving women and men, however, are traditions that have held women’s empowerment back.

We notice that most shops here are operated by men, highlighting the inequalities women face.

This place is inhabited by the Pokot, one of the pastoral communities in Kenya.

In West Pokot County, women have limited rights to own or inherit land because of patriarchal traditions and customs.

“We rely on male traders who bring foodstuffs from Kapenguria and other big towns.

"They hire us to sell their produce or items, and earn between Sh100 and Sh200 a day. Such jobs hardly come by, though,” says Chepekamoi Ekwakit, one of the women traders we meet at the centre.

From access to, use and ownership of land, women here hardly have a say.

Men and women take part in a forum raising awareness of land rights at Chesra in Kapenguria, West Pokot County.

Photo credit: Stanley Kimuge I Nation Media Group

Ninety-two per cent of land belongs to men, six per cent jointly owned by men and women, while only two per cent is single-handedly owned by women.

Women in pastoralist communities in Kenya and East Africa face significant discrimination and barriers to owning or inheriting land.

These communities are traditionally patriarchal, with men controlling property and livestock. Women may access land through a male relative but have limited independent rights.

The majority often have to get permission to access and use family land, and shy away from buying their own parcels.

At Kiwawa, for example, a few empowered men have allowed their wives to own a plot.

“No woman has dared to buy land here. More often, my husband may decide to sell our land without consulting me, but I can't dare sell the same parcel,” says 38-year-old Ms Ekwakit.

Efforts by organisations and gender advocates to raise awareness of women's property rights have made gradual progress, though traditional customs continue to limit women's land ownership and control.

Land experts are pushing for more education on land rights among the communities to reverse the situation.

Though women in the country generally don’t have a say on acquisition and disposal of land and other properties, including livestock, in pastoral communities, the situation is worse.

Kiwawa centre at the Kenya-Uganda border in West Pokot County.

Photo credit: Stanley Kimuge I Nation Media Group

Kiwawa Assistant County Commissioner Nimrod Kaane admits that cultural beliefs and lack of awareness of land rights have hindered women from ownership.

“Land remains an emotive issue in the community, especially when it comes to women owning it.

"We, however, have a new generation of educated men, who have given some women plots within the centres,” he says.

Mr Kaane explains that because of traditions, many women find themselves in difficult situations when they want to buy land.

“When a woman wants to buy land, she is likely to use proxies who are men, to approach a landowner,” says the official.

He notes that they have initiated a process in consultation with the local land management committee that comprises five women and 10 men to support more women to get deeds.

Fortunately, there exist initiatives to empower women on their land rights.

Through the European Union and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)-funded digital land programme that was implemented in collaboration with the national government and the counties, local communities are educated on land rights, enabling them to register the community land and own it.

Today, a new generation of land rights champions in the region, including women and men, is actively advocating the inclusion of women in land ownership.

Mariah Bariach, a nominated Member of the County Assembly, is among the few women who own land in the devolved unit.

She admits that most women in the marginalised communities lack the knowledge of land rights.

Mariah Bariach, a nominated MCA, land rights advocate and Maendeleo ya Wanawake North Rift chairperson, in West Pokot on August 24, 2023.

Photo credit: Stanley Kimuge I Nation Media Group

Ms Bariach says access to land and land deeds would enable women to access loans or other credit facilities.

“Most often when a husband dies, women lose properties, including land, because they are told there are no documents to show how the wealth should be shared,” explains the 57-year-old.

For the past decade, she has been involved in sensitisation of the community to land use and ownership.

Although practices like widow inheritance and polygamy undermine women's land rights, the tides are changing as more women own more land.

The county is ranked second in regard to men who practise polygamy. Traditionally, a man who marries one wife is considered an outcast.

The practice remains deeply rooted in pastoralist communities.

“Through the programmes, the community appreciates the need for more women to own land. In the Cheperaria area, for example, 35 per cent of women now own land,” states Ms Bariach, who also chairs the Maendeleo Ya Wanawake North Rift chapter.

Lands Executive in West Pokot Esther Chelimo Loukotumin, who admits that polygamy disadvantages women on land rights, says the county is working to empower women.

“We are encouraging men in polygamous relationships, land administrators or registrars to include the women's names when issuing titles so that when the spouses die, none can sell land without consulting the other(s).

"We don't want to see women quarrel and we encourage them to share the properties,” she says.

Crop and livestock production

Ms Loukotumin argues that women play key economic roles in livestock production and management and tend to better use land to grow their own food crops and keep livestock sustainably, thus addressing food shortages and malnutrition levels and raising their own income.

Our visit to Kwokwa, one of the seven islands in Lake Baringo, Baringo County, reveals a similar situation.

Among the Ilchamus, a community that lives here, women traditionally had no say on land matters. The situation is, however, changing. Maria Lagariop, a resident, is elated by the changing tide.

“We recently changed the land from a community group range where few elderly men were decision-makers, to community land. We now feel as part of decision-making,” explains the mother of five.

Baringo Lands Executive Reuben Rutto tells Nation.Africa that as a result of cultural beliefs that hinder women from land ownership, only three per cent of women own land in the county.

“It is sad that in Tiaty, the number of women who own land is almost zero. Generally, in this county, when a girl grows up, she is not entitled to inheritance of ancestral land,” states the executive, noting that only 40 per cent of the land had been demarcated, leaving most of the county without titles.

Mr Rutto notes that the county is in the process of sensitising locals in Tiaty, Baringo North and Baringo South County. They are also working to ensure the vast land is adjudicated, demarcated and proper land ownership implemented.

Baringo governor Benjamin Cheboi agrees that traditions of pastoral communities have negatively impacted land ownership among women.

“The law on land use is clear when it comes to apportioning or land inheritance. We must comply with the law,” the county boss tells Nation.Africa during an interview in his office.

Husna Mbarak, digital land programme lead at FAO, notes that there exist gaps on policy framework, and lack of proper data.

“We don’t have clear data on how many people own land in this country. We still approximate that less than two per cent of women own land. The moment we go digital, we will have all the data, which will advise and guide on land planning and zoning,” she explains.

Law enforcement

The expert also calls for enforcement of the laws, including the Matrimonial Act.

“When dealing with a joint title, how does it apply in polygamous setup, despite the marriage or Matrimonial Act? In traditional setup, the second wife is a secret.

“Another challenge is the land control boards. They need to be relooked in regard to land transfer processes so that we have a proper way of verification . . .

"When a man wants to sell land, he can walk in with any woman to a land control board because there is no proper way to verify if she is the true wife,” says Ms Mbarak, who is also a land policy expert.

Sebastian Mwenza, a county land technical specialist at FAO, says fewer women in pastoral communities own land as they are often not entitled to land inheritance, lack resources to acquire land, while those in urban setups must go through rigorous succession processes that discourage them from land ownership.

“In some of these communities, women are still viewed as children. Yet studies show that when women own land, more is utilised towards food security or other meaningful purposes,” the expert observes.

He explains that despite the law providing that a third of members of land management committees be women, in most places, this has not been implemented.

In Isiolo, Laikipia, Marsabit and Samburu counties, significant progress has been made, thanks to the requirement for women to be included in the community land register and management committees. This is in line with the constitutional clause on ‘affirmative action’ geared towards addressing gender discrimination.

Women here now have a voice in decision-making on better land management as they, in most cases, constitute the biggest number on the register due to polygamy.

The Community Land Act states that a quorum for decision-making should not be less than two-thirds of the community assembly’s total number of registered adult members in the community.

The Community Assembly elects between seven and 15 members who constitute the Community Land Management Committee (CLMC) tasked with managing and administering registered community land on behalf of the community and coordinating its development in collaboration with respective authorities.

Janet Leparsati, the treasurer of Sarara Community Land Management Committee in Samburu East, is among the pastoralist women who have gone against the odds to join the executive team dominated by men.

“Initially, we were only allowed into the committee as members and our contribution was not recognised.

"However, through continued training, we have competed with men for executive positions and I am happy the community picked me in a group of three men,” she says when we meet her during training by Namati in Isiolo.

The organisation trains women involved in community land management committees in leadership and financial literacy for increased participation in community affairs, and to enable them to take up leadership positions in the land committees.

Men, she says, have rubbished her off, on several occasions claiming that she was incapable of serving in the position, but she focused on discharging her role.

“I was under immense pressure [from men] and we quarrelled on several occasions. They, however, later embraced me, setting the stage for collaborative working,” says the 40-year-old woman.

Mary Ranga from Kilmon in Laikipia says the legal provision has come in handy for women.

“Previously, Samburu women had no voice. Today, they are allowed to share meetings with men and take up leadership positions even though the change continues to face pressure from retrogressive cultural traditions,” she tells Nation.Africa.

Violet Namanusetek, a woman from Nkiloriti in Laikipia North, says she is happy the Community Land Act requires women’s inclusion in the register (which is reviewed annually) and leadership.

“Our contribution is now recognised and we are allowed into meetings with men because we all enjoy equal rights in management of the community land. We have eight men and seven women in the CLMC,” she says.

Nkiloriti and the neighbouring Musul community are among those that have successfully transferred their land from group ranch to community land. The Musul community got its title deed in February 2020.

Ms Namanusetek says their involvement in decisions such as the drafting of by-laws for land use and management has also enabled them to benefit from conservation income, thereby uplifting their lives.

Laikipia’s Twala cultural group, an umbrella of six women’s groups from two communities and with a membership of 203 women, is involved in beekeeping and beadwork business, among other projects.

Its chairperson, Magdalene Rana, tells Nation.Africa that they enjoy unlimited use of a 40-acre land given to them by men.

“The provision for gender involvement in land issues has helped change men’s mind-sets and women are slowly enjoying rights to use and manage land for economic empowerment,” Ms Rana says.

“Men gave us 20 acres 15 years ago and several years later, an extra 20 acres, which allow us to undertake income-generating activities such as beekeeping on a large scale.”

They use 10 per cent of their income to support members and non-member girl education to ensure they are not married off at a young age or exposed to harmful practices such as female genital mutilation.

We meet Lokho Abduba from North Horr during a learning exchange tour for Marsabit communities in Laikipia. She says there is a need for continued sensitisation to community land registration to empower women so that they actively participate in the process.

“Proper land use and management helps avert conflicts and builds community resilience against perennial climatic shocks,” she says during the tour organised by the Indigenous Strategy and Institution for Development.

The organisation promotes home-grown land management approaches and builds capacity for communities and land stakeholders in implementation of national tenure policies, including Community Land Act, 2016.

Several communities in Marsabit are in the process of registering their communal land with Rawana, the recent to submit requisite documents such as register, sketch of the land and by-laws at the office of the Registrar of Community Land in charge of Isiolo and Marsabit counties in Isiolo town.

Compulsory acquisition

Ms Leparsati says registering their land enabled them to benefit from compensation for government projects being undertaken within the community and that they used the money to buy food and pay school fees for their children.

“The money would have gone to the county government that is allowed by the law to hold in trust all unregistered community land on behalf of the communities,” she said.

Article 40 (3) of the Constitution and Land Act states that no interest in or right over community land may be compulsorily acquired by the State except in accordance with the law, for a public purpose or upon prompt payment of just compensation in full or by negotiated settlement.

While the process has been a bit slow in Isiolo because of political wrangling on whether to register the land at ward, sub-county or constituency level, women are hopeful of benefitting.

“We are happy that the Constitution has safeguarded our rights and I appreciate men who have embraced women to be at the decision-making table on land and other matters,” Ms Halima Yussuf from Kom said.

Back at Kiwawa centre in West Pokot, Pauline Chepochepos Longar says most women in her community have no knowledge of land ownership rights, which impedes their empowerment.

“As women, we don’t know what it takes to own land. We need more education and empowerment to enable us to take our children to school and engage in other economic activities,” the 25-year-old tells Nation.Africa as we part ways.