November 6, 2019

Rural Women’s Assembly: Their livelihoods, whose land?

Did you know that over 30% of women are agricultural workers, but less than 13% own the land? That means that all around the world, women are the ones responsible for producing food for their families and communities, yet at the end of the day they don’t have a say when it comes to the land they work on. Here’s how our grantee-partners Rural Women’s Assembly in South Africa are working to change that.

A region in crisis

Depending on how old you were at the time, you may or may not remember what became known as the World Food Crisis. In 2007, and through the first half of 2008, food prices rocketed globally, causing economic instability and social unrest. But in southern Africa, there was another crisis on top of that: HIV/AIDS.

“There were quite a lot of food riots in the region,” recalls Mercia Andrews, RWA’s regional coordinator for southern Africa. “But for us in southern Africa there was also another pandemic that we were grappling with as women, and that was with HIV/AIDS.”
At the time Mercia was working at the Trust for Community Outreach and Education, a network advocating for the land rights of rural men and women. (she is now co-director along with Lungisa Huna).

“We needed to see how we could build a feminist solidarity - a way of sharing and thinking and acting together.”


Mercia: “We decided we needed to organise. So we invited farmers' associations and women's groups from Southern Africa to come and talk to each other about the fact the issues we were all facing across the region - so even though we have national borders, southern Africa is one territory and we all have to coexist. The HIV/AIDS pandemic was a regional crisis and its one of the poorest regions in Africa and globally and therefore we needed to see how we could build a feminist solidarity - a way of sharing and thinking and acting together.”

People traveled from all over southern African in caravans to attend the meeting , and by the end of the first day it was clear that they were creating something that would long outlast the gathering itself. And so they gave it a name: Rural Women’s Assembly. 

Fighting for land rights under patriarchy

Today, the Rural Women’s Assembly (RWA) is active in nine countries across southern Africa (Lesotho, Namibia, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe), forming a resilient network that supports rural women who defend common natural resources and fight for their land rights. And as the current climate crisis continues to escalate, their work becomes increasingly vital.

This work begins with the land. Land translates into livelihood; it it the most fundamental resource to provide sustenance. And as land that was formerly considered a common, shared resource becomes increasingly privatized, those who have money can buy land - mostly men. While most land in Southern Africa remains state land, this land is governed by customary laws that give men authority – so men receive privileged access over women to this land, too. “As a natural resource, land should be a common resource that is accessible to all – but especially women, who are often the producers of food and the carers at home,” says Mercia. “In many cases in rural areas, men go and work in the cities, especially in the mines and women often are the ones who remain behind, who have to care and provide for the family.” When men remain in rural areas, they more often manage livestock than produce crops. Mercia: “If you’ve got a cow, you can sell it, and you can get quite a lot of money for one cow. Whereas to get the same amount of money women must really work to produce lots of food crops to make the same income.” This is where a fundamental contradiction emerges: women contribute significantly to the economy, but earn less than men (inhibiting their financial independence). And more fundamentally still, they don’t have access to what should be common resources.

For Mercia and Lungisa (RWA South Africa Convener), the fight for land rights is a fight against the patriarchy: customary laws, which are enforced by and give authority to men, deny women ownership of land. “It’s a system in Africa that is very dominant, and very much tied to religion – whether Islam or Christianity – and patriarchy. It’s very intertwined,” explains Mercia. When women can’t legally own land, they also can’t inherit it – so when women become widows, for example, they can be chased off the land by the family of their late husband.

This is one of the things that RWA is trying to change, by working together to ensure rural women’s voices are part of the conversation. “In South Africa there is pending legislation to be passed about traditional leadership and traditional courts. We’ve challenged the Traditional Leadership and Khoisan Bill, we’ve challenged the state. Our members have participated in platforms and podiums where they’ve engaged in this issue. They’ve been very vocal in ensuring that there’s consideration of the issues that affect women, especially rural women.”

Seeds of survival

It begins with land, but it doesn’t end there.“We’ve taken on all of the issues around rural women’s livelihood,” says Lungisa. “The question of land is central to that but so is traditional seed. Because it determines food sovereignty - people’s ability to fend for themselves.”

And as the climate crisis becomes ever more urgent – South Africa recently saw its worst drought in over 1000 years - so too preserving indigenous seed. Mercia: “We see that women are the ones who saving traditional seeds, creating seed banks; they are the ones who will be able to continue agricultural practices in times of climate crisis, in times of drought. They will have looked after the seeds for the future.”

“Multi-national corporations are pushing aside small farmers’ seeds and indigenous seeds so that they can sell their own.”


Multi-national agricultural corporations like Monsanto, infamous for introducing genetically engineered seeds around the world, are threatening the indigenous biodiversity. “They are pushing aside small farmers’ seeds and indigenous seeds so that they can sell their own,” Lungisa explains. This exploitative approach from foreign interests is unfortunately nothing new, and even being facilitated by traditional authorities. Take mining companies, for example: “the policy is come in, dig it up, and ship it out,” says Mercia.

These extractive processes are one of the factors in widespread food insecurity, which in turn “has created a narrative that Africa cannot feed itself,” says Mercia. Enter the Green Revolution.

Mercia: “The Green Revolution is a combination of strategies that says, if you plant these seeds, and use this package of fertilizers and pesticides, your food will grow faster. And if you have tractors, you can mechanize your agriculture, so you will produce much more. In fact, this approach attacks the food systems and destroys what people are used to growing. Now we grow maize and export crops as opposed to household food crops. It contributes largely to the use of the GMOs, it creates indebtedness, it leads to unsustainability.”

But the Rural Women’s Assembly is working against these trends. Lungisa: “We’re looking at alternatives that approach the food system issue holistically, that prevent overproduction and food waste. We’re looking at ecological interventions that need to be put in place, and trying to bring new thinking and new ways of doing and sharing ideas of how to really deal with a crisis like what we are facing at the moment.”

“We are living at a moment of climate emergency and therefore there is need for urgent agency – and rural women are the ones who are impacted by this,” she continues. “That’s why we drive the notion of traditional seeds: how to restore seeds and nurture seeds, bank and save our own seeds, and how to find other ways of working with organic compost, and methods to grow food that require less water. We need to move away from the commercial way of food production which is not sustainable, organise local markets, and raise awareness of the importance of trees. In many rural areas, trees are cut down and deforestation is a real problem.”

Spirit of resistance

And it seems to be working. “There’s a strong resistance that women in our network carry with them anywhere they go,” says Mercia. She means this literally: “They take indigenous seeds and share them even though there are border restrictions to traveling with agricultural produce. But the women carry them.”

“We recently sent some young farmers from Zambia and Zimbabwe to Mauritius, for a school of ecology that we participate in, and they told us: ‘We took our seeds and we organised a display because we want them to see what African seeds are like - our biodiversity.’ This spiritual resistance is something they believe in very strongly. If multinational seed companies can send their seeds all over the world, why can we not promote local seeds?”

“The future is in the hands of younger women, and the sustainability of this movement depends on intergenerational relationships.”


RWA has built this awareness among rural women through programs like their annual Feminist School. “The Feminist School is about raising consciousness, understanding patriarchy, and understanding the overlap between patriarchy, capitalism, and climate change,” says Mercia. It’s an intergenerational space, with 50/50 participation of older and younger women. “The future is in the hands of younger women, and the sustainability of this movement depends on intergenerational relationships and practices - the bringing in of new knowledge, but also learning from others’ past experiences.”

RWA also occupies key political spaces, like state head meetings, agricultural panels, and COP, and participate in organising grassroots events like a recent people’s summit. They issue press statements and engage with media to put and keep rural women’s rights on the agenda in public debate. Several of their members have been elected to local offices, representing the concerns and demands of rural women.

But when asked what they are most proud of, it is simply the fact that ten years into their work, they have remained a grassroots organisation. “We’re not organised as a traditional NGO with lots of money and an office. I don’t think we want that,” Lungisa says. “We want this to stay an accessible grassroots movement. We would rather invest in building feminist leadership for the movement, connected to grassroots issue that impact on women. The fact that this is a movement for peasant women farmers driven by the farmers themselves – that’s something to celebrate.”

And the support of Mama Cash is part of what has allowed them not to have to become an NGO themselves. Lungisa: “Mama Cash’s support has allowed RWA to occupy more spaces, to reach out to more villages and reach more rural women, to make our voice louder. We are beginning to see a shift in terms of the paradigms. We’re beginning to make gains.”

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