Gender Disparities in Customary Land Allocation: Lessons from USAID Impact Evaluation Data


The principal authors of this report were Johanna Beduhn (American University) and Benjamin Linkow (Landesa). Niketa Kulkarni and Iffat Chowdhury made important contributions at earlier stages of the research, and Kerry Mapes and Narcisa Pricope of the Geospatial Service Group of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington provided geospatial analysis. We thank Caleb Stevens, Janet Nackoney, Ioana Bouvier, Jen Duncan, and Diana Fletschner for their valuable comments and suggestions.

Executive Summary

For the smallholder farmers who make up the majority of the population in sub-Saharan Africa, land is a vital economic asset. Secure rights to land are often the difference between a sustainable agricultural livelihood and extreme poverty. Despite the fact that women provide much of the agricultural labor and are active participants in the agricultural sector, land access and ownership remain severely unequal. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that less than 5-20 percent of agricultural landholders in developing regions are women (FAO 2010). Allocation of land by customary systems is common in sub-Saharan Africa, with traditional rules and authorities determining what land rights are given to whom. Women are often disadvantaged under these customary land allocation systems, which is a significant source of gender bias in land access. However, specific evidence on the extent and implications of gender bias in customary land allocation is limited.

This report presents an empirical analysis of gender bias in customary land allocation using USAID impact evaluation datasets from Ethiopia and Zambia. The analysis combined survey datasets to create a larger sample, and used statistical methods to compare relevant outcomes between female- and male-headed households. The key research questions and findings are summarized as follows:

Research Question 1: Are female-headed households less likely to receive customary land allocations?

The data show that female-headed households in the study areas are less likely than male-headed households to have received customary allocations of land. Male-headed households have on average 0.85 parcels that have been acquired via customary allocation, compared to 0.74 parcels for female-headed households. The findings suggest that this disparity is explained by differences in other household characteristics that tend to disadvantage female-headed households, rather than explicit discrimination in the form of biased rules or decision-making by customary authorities. For example, larger households and parcels that were acquired further in the past are associated with a higher likelihood of customary allocation. Both of these characteristics are also more common in male-headed households, which accounts for much of the observed gender disparity.

Research Question 2: Does the land that female-headed households receive through the customary system have less productive potential compared to land of male-headed households?

The analysis also looked at the quality of agricultural land received by customary allocation, in terms of the size, soil quality, and other factors that determine the overall productivity of the land. Our results show that when female-headed households do receive customary land allocations, it has substantially less productive potential compared to male-headed households. Even after accounting for differences between female- and male-headed households in terms of these characteristics, we still find substantial gender disparity in the quality of customarily allocated land. Thus, our results suggest customary rules and decision-making tend to discriminate against women in terms the quality of the land that they provide.

Research Question 3: Do female-headed households perceive their land tenure security as weaker compared to male headed households—both for parcels acquired by customary allocation and otherwise? Are female-headed households more likely to experience land-related disputes compared to male-headed households?

The datasets also include responses to subjective questions on perceived tenure security and land disputes that allow us to consider gender disparities along these dimensions on customarily allocated land. In terms of perceived tenure security, the central finding is that for the sample as a whole, we do not find statistically significant evidence of gender disparity; controlling for other factors, female household heads do not tend to perceive their tenure as less secure than male household heads. We do find some evidence of gender disparity with regard to incidence of disputes. Female headed households are 14.9% more likely to have experienced a dispute, though this result is statistically significant only at the 10% level. We also find that female headed households are less likely to have experienced a dispute on land that they have purchased, relative to other modes of acquisition.

Research Question 4: To what extent are female-headed households able to use land sales and/or rental markets to acquire land as an alternative to gender-biased customary systems?

Given the gender bias in customary land allocation, it is also important to consider whether female-headed households can utilize sales or rental markets as an alternative means to obtain land. In our study areas, we find that female-headed households tend to be unable to access land markets in ways that mitigate the disparities encountered in customary land allocation. Since both Ethiopia and Zambia have legal restrictions on buying and selling land, land sales are very rare for both female- and male-headed households throughout the sample. Rental markets are more commonly used and thus provide a potential means for women to obtain land. However, after accounting for other differences in household characteristics, we find that female-headed households have substantially less access to rental markets compared to male-headed households. A parcel in a female-headed household is 54% less likely to have been acquired by rental compared to an otherwise identical male-headed household.

It is important to bear in mind that our datasets include study areas in Ethiopia and Zambia only, and thus the extent to which the findings can be generalized may be limited. Moreover, our analysis is limited to gender disparities faced by female-headed households only, as the data do not allow us to investigate these issues for married women. Nonetheless, our findings provide valuable empirical evidence that customary land allocation systems can be an important source of gender bias in access to land. Our results suggest three main recommendations as follows:

  1. It is essential for programs seeking to formalize aspects of customary land governance systems to take cognizance of the potential for gender bias in customary land allocation systems. While the importance of harmonizing formal and informal land tenure systems is widely recognized, our findings show that customary systems can also reflect substantial gender bias. Thus, careful attention to potential gender bias is needed in legitimizing and codifying aspects of customary systems into law so that women are not placed at a disadvantage.
  2. Future assessments of gender bias in land rights and allocation for the purposes of program design or policy advice should pay careful attention to land quality as a source of gender disparity. Our findings show that female-headed households are somewhat less likely to receive customary land allocations, and when they do receive land, the productive potential is lower. Thus, it may not be sufficient for assessments of gender bias to consider only whether or not women are able to access land and the size of their landholdings. Instead, such assessments should also carefully consider the productive potential of land as another potential source of disparity.
  3. Future data collection efforts should consider including surveys of all husbands and wives within the household, focusing on intra-household dynamics and decision-making processes. Such data would allow for the investigation of gender disparities facing married women in addition to female-headed households, overcoming a key limitation of our analysis.