When we take a women-first approach to our work, we recognize that women are not a monolith. Depending on their cultural, social, economic, religious, or ethnic backgrounds, their understanding, conceptualization, and access to their rights might vary broadly. That’s why looking at what works for women at the various intersections where they live is crucial.
A member of the first cohort of the Women’s Land Rights Institute, Abebaw Abebe Belay works as a lawyer with Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture. His work focuses on women’s land rights in the country and, more specifically, the rights of women in rural areas.
We spoke with him recently about how his participation in our first group of students has impacted his work. One area that he noted of particular importance was the value of networking with other practitioners who are focused on these issues in their respective countries.
“The colleagues were from different countries, and they have their different experiences of how they treat land rights in their countries, so that was a lesson for me,” Belay shared. “I took those lessons and, taking into account the social differences, I started to adapt some of those lessons to improve outcomes in my country.”
For him, a rather pressing issue is the disconnect between Ethiopian law and regional ethnic practices when it comes to marriage.
“Polygamy is a serious challenge here in our country,” he explained. “Over twenty percent of the population in our rural areas are living in polygamous unions, but the laws prohibit polygamy. One of the other members of the training, who was from Kenya, shared what has worked there, where polygamy is recognized by law.”
This colleague shared how land rights were managed within polygamous unions in Kenya, which inspired Belay. “In my work, I am helping to draft land law,” he said. “So this experience has given me insight into how we might address polygamous situations in a way that supports land and inheritance rights for women.”
Belay’s approach outlines how imperative it is that we work to reconcile sometimes dissonant legal and customary practices in a particular region. Women who are part of a polygamous union in Ethiopia lack secure access to land and resource rights, as well as a clear understanding of their inheritance rights in the event that their husband dies.
Rather than prohibit women from being able to participate in formal land and resource management because of their marital status, Belay believes that addressing it more practically will ensure better outcomes for women.
“So while polygamy will still be illegal in Ethiopia, the draft law that I’m working on will allow for a provision that considers how land rights apply in polygamous situations,” Belay noted. “This is very important, especially in rural areas, in protecting the land rights of women.”
Belay is planning to continue his studies in a PhD program, for which he has already secured fiscal sponsorship. His research focus will be women’s land rights.