Tabitha Karimi could barely hide her delight at the thought of a bumper harvest as she took part in training on how to farm with crops specially adapted to the region, after many years of poor harvests in Tharaka in eastern Kenya.
Karimi, who usually produces just five or six bags of the beans, maize and vegetables she grows on the six-acre (2.4 hectare) farm she tends with her husband, said she had learned a lot from a session in which crops were tested for their suitability to the soil.
“As a couple, I now understand where we have been going wrong as we have not only been using the wrong techniques but have not farmed with the right crops adapted to the region,” said Karimi, who was trained alongside other women farmers.
But her dream of making her family more food-secure was shattered when she suggested to her husband that she take over the running of their farm. He would not accept that the wife he had “bought” with a dowry would control him, she said.
Karimi’s predicament reflects how entrenched patriarchal attitudes in Kenya are holding back women’s rights over land, despite the 2010 constitution granting women rights to own and inherit land and to exert joint control over family resources, experts and activists say.
“In African culture, a woman has no say when it comes to property. Her views aren’t valid and cannot therefore influence a man’s decision in any way,” David Mugambi, a natural resource management expert and don at Chuka University, said.
“Even at the household level, a woman cannot own a cow, a goat or a sheep … she has no collateral when it comes to a loan guarantee as she isn’t even the legal owner of the farm.”
‘WOMEN’S RIGHTS ARE SECONDARY’
Like other women in Tharaka-Nithi County, Karimi has no choice but to comply with decisions made by her husband – or by her father and brothers.
Such traditions are detrimental to farming as they silence women who may have valuable knowledge to offer, experts say.
Nathan Njagi, a social services worker in Tharaka, said changes in the law had not resulted in land rights for women.
“Only six percent of women own land in Tharaka – the majority are the elite … ironic a few years after Kenya ushered in a new era in land management in 2010,” he said.
Human rights activists say women’s land rights continue to lag in Kenya because the issue is poorly understood and traditional attitudes are so ingrained that many Kenyans fail to grasp that equal land rights are granted by the constitution.
This situation is particularly problematic because women account for more than 80 percent of the rural population whose only means of a livelihood is land, Njagi said.
“Customary laws, the patriarchal nature of Kenyan society – where the man is held as the head of the household and women’s rights to land are seen as secondary – as well as some communities dictating that women should not own land or other immovable properties – play a key role in the discrimination against women,” he said.
IMPACT ON FARMING
A lack of land rights for women undermines their ability to improve the productivity of the farmland as well as their economic status, said farmer Grace Nkatha.
Without land, women have no collateral to access financial services, restricting their ability to invest in fertilisers, seeds and other innovations to increase yields and incomes.
“The ability to access credit for farmer is vital to enable them access the right seeds, the right farm inputs and have the right storage facilities after harvesting,” she said.
Joel Kithure, a project officer with CARITAS, an NGO that works to eradicate food shortages, said organisations like his were striving to advance women’s land rights as a way of ensuring families have enough to eat.
But for Karimi, traditional attitudes to the role of women are still holding her back. She hopes that eventually she can persuade her husband that she has knowledge to offer.
“My husband may not be buying the idea now, but I am sure that in the near future he will,” she said.