Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Livelihoods, Security and Needs: Gender Relations and Land Reform in South Africa

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Livelihoods, Security and Needs: Gender Relations and Land Reform in South Africa

Article excerpt


This article focuses on the land reform programme in South Africa as well as on broader questions of rural women's needs. It draws on interviews with 47 key informants, drawn particularly from the NGO sector, carried out in 2002 and 2003. It examines the importance of 'land' compared with wider issues such as personal and bodily security. Despite some encouraging state initiatives, most informants felt that poorer rural women remained marginalized within the land reform programme and more generally. Needs for independent income, health, and personal security were emphasised, with secure access to land seen as potentially beneficial although not as strong a priority. However, this should not be 'read' as an argument for ignoring the benefits of land rights for women: a rural women's movement is needed to carry this forward demands both for economic rights and those linked to bodily integrity.

Keywords: land reform, South Africa, women's needs/interests


This article concerns gender relations and the land reform programme in South Africa. The research on which the article is based, conducted in 2002 and 2003, analyses the views of 47 key informants. (2) The 'land' question in southern Africa concerns livelihoods, but is also central to a nexus of other political and symbolic issues concerning traditional authority and new types of citizenship; communal vs. individual rights, and what a democratic outcome might look like in rural areas. Tangled as are these questions in a general sense, they become even more complex when seen through a gendered lens. From the late 1970s, feminist work on land rights, and on land reform more specifically, developed, but these continue to be seen as 'side' issues within most feminist writing, despite the large numbers of women residing in rural areas of low-income countries.

Despite the radical or reformist aims of most land reform mobilisations, land reforms have been largely negative, or at best ambiguous, for rural women and particularly for married women (Jacobs 1997; see later discussion). In the late 1990s, South Africa enshrined gender equity as a key aspect of its land reform programme, and so appeared to be an exceptional case in which married as well as single women might be able to access rights within a state-based reform process (see Jacobs, 1998). By early in the new century, such an outcome appeared overoptimistic.

Against this background, the article asks what importance should be given to equitable inclusion of women in land reform: do other aspects of women's lives present more pressing needs? The article analyses the views of a sample of land activists and gender specialists, drawn from the NGO sector as well as from government, academia and consultancies. In particular, it focuses on views concerning types of land tenure that might be of benefit, and on the place of 'land' compared with other types of needs in rural women's lives. Another contribution is the linking of areas not always seen as related: land rights and economic rights as connected.

Relevant literatures

The research discussed here draws on a range of background literatures. The debates discussed concern four (main) areas:

i) Literature on gender and land reform; and

ii) On deagrarianisation or diversification of rural livelihoods.

iii) I have drawn together some observations on risks and insecurities in S. African women's lives;

iv) Literature relating to women's needs and interests.

Gender and land reform

Land reforms have historically either taken place along collective or else individual household lines, with the latter being predominant and most successful in terms of raising agricultural output. Agrarian reform has been one of the main aims of peasant movements, the intended outcome being to democratise rural sectors through land distribution, and to improve the lives and livelihoods of smallholders. …

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