In 2020, the government approved a new women empowerment policy. In an attempt to address a historically male-centric initiative, the policy proposes that around half of South Africa’s National Redistribution Programme’s agricultural land should be allocated to women. However, tangible action is still lacking while women remain sidelined in agriculture. 

Delivery on this promise has fallen far short of expectations and women remain sidelined in agricultural land ownership. Of the 700,000ha of land government released in October 2020, just 53,000ha across 78 farms were allocated to women. How many women actually benefited from what amounts to less than 8% of the land redistributed? According to agriculture, land reform, and rural development minister Thoko Didiza, just 217.

Access to land is critical for empowerment, says Moipone Jwayi, co-owner of the Rural Women Assembly Agroecological Hub, in an interview on SAFM. A food garden in the Free State, the hub is run by 19 women working to combat hunger and food insecurity in the Botshabelo community.

“The project started when we had dialogues with women who were victims of gender-based violence. Most were staying in this situation because they had no alternative place to get food,” Jwayi explains. “Some women had to endure this violence from partners who were the ones bringing in food or who were the source of income in the household.”

Women face a number of challenges in the small-scale farming sector. The lack of female land ownership, says Jwayi, is the most prominent. “Even though we have a lease agreement, this is somebody else’s property,” she emphasises. “The market is mostly dominated by men. Men own the land, and it is the people who own the land who have access to the market.”

Leases do not give food producers the long-term stability that owning land provides. Particularly for small-scale farmers, owning land lays the foundations for a stable and financially sustainable business.

“It is very difficult to access wider markets if you don’t have land. We are able to sell fresh produce we grow to large retailers because we managed to get a lease of 30ha from one of the land reform beneficiaries… She offered us this space to train women and be able to produce on that site,” Jwayi elaborates. “This is why we are calling on our government to give women more land to access the market.”

In 2021, Didiza admitted that government was unhappy with the 2020 land redistribution results and wanted to increase the land allocated to women. 

“Women remain the bedrock of strengthening our food systems at local level. The issue of land access and ownership remains an important productive asset that women need. We need to develop strategies on how we can ensure a better legal framework that will ensure access and equity,” she reaffirmed.

Didiza added that the agricultural department wanted to expand women’s knowledge in agro-processing and agrobusiness through a master plan encompassing gender parity.

Despite these assertions, it seems theory is not always put into practice. As Jwayi points out, her agroecological hub’s “One Woman, One Hectare” campaign has not been adequately addressed by local government. 

“They responded with ‘‘One Family, One Hectare’. But the patriarchal system prevents women from controlling the land… if land is given to the family, mostly the men are given the property and the women are sidelined. This is why the land must be given to women directly to own, so they can also make decisions on how they want to run the land,” she reiterates.

South Africa remains well short of gender parity in farming. In the Eastern Cape, Mujura et al. (2022) found that males still dominate smallholding farming, with women comprising 35% of study respondents. In August 2022, meanwhile, the Mail and Guardian published an article asserting that women continue to be barred from access to land by tradition, culture, and ignorance.

As noted by Jwayi, the agroecological hub plays an important role in skills transfer, training women in agricultural skills including how to grow, process, and market their produce. The idea extends to taking some produce home, securing their household food security without potentially being beholden to a violent partner. The fruit trees provided by Food & Trees for Africa are a good example, as the project helps women to produce their own fruit tree seedlings to take home.

Clearly, initiatives that attract and upskill women farmers to work land they own themselves help to close the gender gap and address high unemployment among South African women. These women can and should be enfranchised to support themselves and their communities through sustainable farming. Increased female land ownership will help to combat food insecurity in some of our poorest communities.

agriculture, community food garden, Food gardening, food insecurity, land ownership, land redistribution, small-scale farming, sustainable farming, women empowerment
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