Credit: Swathi Sridharan / ICRISAT.
Women’s land rights in Zambia are governed by both law and custom. Although formal law, such as the Constitution and the Lands Act supports property rights and prohibits gender-based discrimination, customary rules and practices often discriminate against women when it comes to access and control over land. The Zambian Constitution explicitly excludes customary law from its prohibition on discriminatory practices, a significant limitation considering the vast amount of land held under custom.
Land in Zambia is generally classified as customary or State (statutory) land with State land defined as land “not situated in a customary area.” Some 94 percent of land in Zambia is classified as customary, and 82 percent of farming households cultivate customary land. Despite this, both the Lands Act, which provides for the documentation and registration of land rights, and the Intestate Succession Act, which governs the division of an estate where the deceased did not have a will, apply only to State land, leaving most Zambians without legal protection for their land rights.
Because of the limited reach of Zambia’s formal laws, customary land is governed by traditional leaders. There are 73 recognized tribes in Zambia, governed by 240 chiefs, 8 senior chiefs, and 4 paramount chiefs. Land is held by the community; individuals and families have use rights to specific plots and some areas are managed as common property.
Women usually access land through their natal family or husband. Sixty-nine of Zambia’s ethnic groups are matrilineal, but this only means that inheritance passes through the female line; land still passes to the male family members. Married women are rarely allotted their own land by the chief, although a single woman with children sometimes may be provided with land.
The government and NGOs are working to strengthen women’s land rights. NGO programs have focused on: educating women and communities about women’s legal rights; challenging discriminatory customary rules; addressing cultural barriers to the implementation of gender-fair inheritance laws; and documenting existing customary rights and encouraging chiefs to keep registers of land rights.
The 2000 National Gender Policy provides that 30 percent of land available for State distribution be allocated to women, and the remaining 70 percent allocated fairly between men and women. However, the policy has had little effect. The October 2006 draft National Land Administration and Management Policy recognizes that women lack control over land, and calls for government measures to address land and gender issues. The 2010 draft Constitution also calls for equitable access to and ownership of land by women. As of September 2013, Zambia’s 2010 draft Constitution has yet to be adopted.