Whitehead, A and Tsikata, D ‘Policy discourses on women’s land rights in sub-Saharan Africa: the Implications of the Re-turn to the Customary’ (2003) 3 Journal of Agrarian Change 104

This article examines some contemporary policy discourses on land tenure reform in sub–Saharan Africa and their implications for women's interests in land. It demonstrates an emerging consensus among a range of influential policy institutions, lawyers and academics about the potential of so–called customary systems of land tenure to meet the needs of all land users and claimants. This consensus, which has arisen out of critiques of past attempts at land titling and registration, particularly in Kenya, is rooted in modernizing discourses and/or evolutionary theories of land tenure and embraces particular and contested understandings of customary law and legal pluralism. It has also fed into a wide–ranging critique of the failures of the post–colonial state in Africa, which has been important in the current retreat of the state under structural adjustment programmes.

African women lawyers, a minority dissenting voice, are much more equivocal about trusting the customary, preferring instead to look to the State for laws to protect women's interests. The authors agree that there are considerable problems with so–called customary systems of land tenure and administration for achieving gender justice with respect to women's land claims. Insufficient attention is being paid to power relations in the countryside and their implications for social groups, such as women, who are not well positioned and represented in local level power structures. But considerable changes to political and legal practices and cultures will be needed before African states can begin to deliver gender justice with respect to land.