Why do land rights for women matter? In this blog post, Winny Chepkemoi of Kenya Land Alliance explains, drawing on her personal experience and the experiences of the women she works with. Winny spoke to Dominic Black while she was taking part in the Women’s Land Rights Institute’s inaugural course on best practices for securing women’s access to land and resources.
Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
"There are risks that we face as women that men can overcome, but for us, you know, it’s different."
DB: Where in Kenya did you grow up?
Winny: I grew up in Kericho, well known for the best tea in the world. I grew up in a rural setting where my parents are civil servants – they work for the government – but they are also farmers. Kenya has at least 47 tribes and I come from the third largest tribe.
DB: And what’s it your tribe called?
Winny: Kalenjin. Of course, something else I would have to add is that it is our sub-tribe that produces the top marathoners in the world, like Eliud Kipchoge. We belong to the same tribe. Of course, that’s the positive side. But our tribe still has its culture intact and some of it suppresses women – it is patriarchal in nature. We have other tribes in Kenya who are matriarchal in nature so women thrive in such tribes. But for us it’s patriarchal. Patriarchal means it was largely led by men from way back. So, I observed, even though that did not happen in my own family, but you just observe what happens around the society.
DB: When you talk about that, was there anything specific that happened? Was there a moment that crystallized things for you?
Winny: I remember growing up – the other thing is I am the only girl in a family of four, so I have three brothers – and I’m the first-born. So, most times I traveled a lot with my father, and this time we were driving home. It rains a lot in my rural home because it’s in the highlands of Kenya. And as we were heading home, we could see a woman holding a child…and we thought she was possibly waiting for public transport.
And my dad pulled to the side of the road and said, ‘You know, women are vulnerable, they should not be out at this hour.’ It was around seven in the evening. And I thought, ‘OK.’ This awakened a consciousness in me that women are different – we are not equal. There are risks that we face as women that men can overcome. But for us, you know, it’s different.
I grew up in the village, went to school, I have always been a smart kid. Later joined Egerton University for my undergraduate. At the university when I started initiatives, I was passionate about women from the outset. I was also the student that was always in the forefront, championing female student’s rights, but it had never crossed my mind about the issues of land.
"You know, look in our village. It’s the women that spend almost six hours in the tea farm, plucking the tea, making sure there are no weeds and so forth."
DB: So, what changed that you came to realize that land was such a significant, all-encompassing issue?
Winny: That came when I was doing my Master’s Program on gender studies. And I had to do my thesis on the socio-cultural factors influencing women’s access to the tea bonus. These are the benefits you accrue from tea, and are allocated to farmers twice in a year.
I was still figuring out what to write about or what to research about. And I had to ask my mother, because they are also tea farmers: ‘Normally when you get the bonus do you feel you have any decision over it?’ And she said, ‘No, you know unconsciously – you know tea bonuses go to your father’s account because the title deed is in his name and so you don’t get to…women don’t even get to have any information if the tea bonus is in.’
She was giving me an example: ‘You know, look in our village. It’s the women that spend almost six hours in the tea farm, plucking the tea, making sure there are no weeds and so forth.’ And I thought, ‘OK, this is interesting.’
DB: So, did you actually do the research on the tea bonus?
Winny: Yes, I did.
DB: And what did you find out?
Winny: I found out that women have no decision over the tea bonus. Women have no representation at all in the tea boards – in Kenya we have the tea boards, we have the tea directorate at the local level. Women hardly get representation. One – because of the voting based on the registration system.
So interestingly the voting system is based on registration of the tea farms. In most cases the title deeds are under the husband’s name, and those are the ones that appear for the meetings. For the female headed households though, I found there was this scenario where the female headed households, yes, they represent themselves in those meetings, but their voices are always suppressed because they are the minority. The men are the majority. And so that trickles down and influences the constitution of the governance structures.
The other issue is education: women hardly even know about the bonus, you know? Of course, they know, ‘A kilo will cost this,’ but they don’t know, ‘If I own seven acres of tea, how much of a bonus could I get? When is it disbursed? Who disburses it? How is the marketing done, how is the auctioneering done?’
And there’s an issue of ownership of land.
One of the focus group discussions was that there was a woman that was in a polygamous setup. And they found that the husband had almost twenty acres of tea. And she asked for her share so that she can take care of her children. And the husband was gracious enough and gave her a share but still it was on the condition that the husband still manages it for her. So, in terms of bonus, in terms of representation in quarterly meetings, the husband still attends on her behalf. Women hardly get absolute ownership and decision making over it.
DB: I’m wondering what are some of the other obstacles that women tend to face when it comes to land?
Winny: It depends on the context. We have a society in Kenya who are matriarchal in nature, and for them the issues of ownership of land, it’s not their problem. They actually get full access, ownership, inheritance and decision making over land equally as either siblings or spouses. Their problem would be the extension services, the markets for their produce and the business environment.
Then I thought, ‘If we are designing interventions as not-for-profit, there is a need to be in touch with the reality in different contexts as well.’ I also realized we have been working on these issues for quite some time, probably from an assumptive point of view. We do not document the real experiences from the ground that would then inform the designing or baseline surveys for project designing and so forth. There is a need to do more.
"You know as a woman, raising the children is on me. So, I have to figure out how to get them maybe their school fees, their shoes, what they eat…if they are not feeling well I am the first person to handle it."
DB: So Winny,…I’m curious about your own personal motivation for doing this work…You mentioned that the society you grew up in presents women with a lot of challenges, and you’re working helping women deal with those challenges. But how does that affect how you feel about where you come from when you’re having to do that daily work?
Winny: What I feel about it – and it’s something I had a reflection over recently – is that, you know, our work is largely about dealing with women issues. Real women issues. You will find that a widow has been evicted, a widow is being disinherited by her own children, or extended family, or farmers; or a daughter was not married and her brothers are not willing to share the property with her.
The first encounter for me in the sector is when we took time to visit the women at their homes. Progress has been realized recently in the context of community lands; I have witnessed women being included in the community land registers in Laikipia County. We celebrated the milestones during the 2021 international women’s day, and for me it was a major moment seeing that the women are now talking about how they used to be treated in the past. Because most of these lands were formally group ranches. And they said that, ‘Men used to decide on anything and everything. We could not even get space to make our beds. We could not even get space to grow our vegetables.’
One of the women narrated to us that: ‘You know as a woman, raising the children is on me. So, I have to figure out how to get them maybe their school fees, their shoes, what they eat – if they are not feeling well, I am the first person to handle it. But now we have registered our lands. And you came and educated our community and our elders that ‘This is what the law is saying, and as a community you can move in this direction.’ And there was good reception.
The organized group of women have been given an allocation by the elders. They were given forty acres of land for their investment. And they were asked to find ways of fencing that forty acres. Of course, the elders marked how those forty acres would be. And the women received more support from development partners for small-scale agriculture, they are now growing organic vegetables, organic capsicum, and they are selling it and they are getting revenue.
"The difference between you and me, even though you are probably way younger than us, is the education you got."
And one of the women leaders said:
‘You know in our community our elders still do not embrace girl-child education, the difference between you and me, even though you are probably way younger than us, is the education you got. That is why you are at a level that you understand the laws, you can teach us even though you are way younger than us. That inspires us, and even though our men do not embrace girl-child education, these forty acres is giving us income and…all the income goes to an account and we actually allocate it to the girls as bursaries. So if our husbands cannot raise school fees – they prefer raising school fees for the boys – at least we can take the girls with our own money to school.’
For me I find it gives me reason to do more: it motivates me, it projects the real transformation, you know?
Back in Nairobi or back in our board rooms, we talk about women’s land rights, but for me that moment redefines for me the work I do. It gives me more energy, because it is something money cannot even buy.
But it also transforms you as a human being that you know, you need to do more. Because if you do more, this is what our societies will transform to.
Winny Chepkemoi is a gender expert with Kenya Land Alliance. She was a participant in the inaugural course from the Women’s Land Rights Institute exploring effective ways of securing land and resource rights for women.