On Ndekusura Urio’s wedding day, she received a gift from her mother-in-law that she knew would transform her life. Her mother-in-law lovingly calls her Ndeku and considers their bond indistinguishable from that of a blood daughter. That day, she gave Ndeku a two-acre parcel of farmland to grow food for her new family near their home on the slopes of Mount Meru, Tanzania’s second-highest mountain. She had been using the land since her own husband’s death. And while indeed this parcel of land transformed Ndeku’s life, it was not in the ways either of them had hoped. Little did they know, this gift of land planted a seed of bitter conflict between Ndeku and some of her husband’s extended family.
“The first few months, everything was alright. One day we found my husband’s siblings on the property, harvesting the maize I had planted. They claimed the land was theirs. They said I could not own land since I was a woman.”
A vile war of words ensued, ending with Ndeku evicted out of the land she owned. While Tanzania’s land laws safeguard women’s right to land ownership, women like Ndeku face significant cultural hurdles in protecting their land tenure. In Meru culture, land ownership is firmly outside the purview of women, despite national laws. The Tanzanian Village Land Act, which took effect in May 2001, gave rural residents usage rights on any land they had occupied without conflict for more than 12 years. Women like Ndeku’s mother-in-law had a lawful claim to land like the one she gave her daughter-in-law. However, without educating their male counterparts on these laws and their implications, a stark reality remains. Neither the land nor the products it yields are considered as belonging to the woman.
Land rights issues and women’s rights issues are inextricably linked. Powered by a grant by the Foundation for Civil Society (FCS), an Arusha-based organization named Community Economic Developmental and Social Transformation (CEDESOTA) helps hundreds of rural women like Ndeku know their land ownership rights, and obtain legal claims to their land.
“I had always asked myself: why should my hard work on my own land be used to feed other people’s families by force? I would not mind if they helped during the tough planting season. In fact, I always tried to help them. Before the CEDESOTA training, I really did not know what to do beyond complaining to my husband about his relatives’ behavior.”
Since the 2017 FCS grant, CEDESOTA has helped 370 women like Ndekusura obtain individual land title documents known as certificates of customary right of occupancy. These were fruits of the 2001 Village Land Act which pertains to usage access of rural Tanzanian land. The organization provides this legal buttressing on top of a foundation of gender equity education for both women and men in rural communities. This is done through seminars, capacity-building sessions for village government leaders, legal support, and organizing civic engagement clinics where rural citizens meet and talk to their local government leaders.
Ndeku also credits her husband’s unwavering support, despite tremendous cultural pressure from his side of the family, once they had learned about a woman’s right to own land from CEDESOTA seminars in their village.
“Once we knew that I could rightfully own land, just like a man can, we wanted something that proved my claim to the land. He had a battle on his hands with his family – they said I was controlling him. But he explained to them, over and over again, that the land was mine. And that he would fight alongside me to prove this.”
CEDESOTA explained the process of obtaining the customary right of occupancy certificate. They also set up a meeting between the family and local government authorities.
“As soon as we got the certificate proving that I was the legal owner of the land, my husband called a meeting with his family and explained everything to them. Some were disappointed, but they all conceded that the land was mine. It was a victorious end to the conflict.”
Since then, Ndekusura has developed the land. She grows maize, beans, and cassava for her family and sells the surplus. With these profits, she has paid for her daughters’ education in nearby Arusha town and has built two brick houses on the property. One for her and her family, and another for her mother-in-law.
Today, Ndeku has joined forces with CEDESOTA as a village educator. She holds seminars in her village and other villages in Meru, explaining to women the Village Land Act and their rights to land ownership. Using her example, she demonstrates to other rural women how they too can own land and bring progress to their families
“All I needed was a little bit of education to end years of conflict. I owe my success to what I learned from CEDESOTA. This land certificate may look like just a piece of paper to you, but it changed everything.”