Women of Kenya Denied Law’s Land Entitlement by Husbands

Mary Sadera
Mary Sadera, the wife of John Sadera, is seen milking a cow during one of her daily tasks in the village of Oloolong'oi, Kenya. Photographer: Ric Francis/Bloomberg

For Mary Sadera, a farmer in Kenya’s Rift Valley, none of the sweeping rights women won two years ago matter if she doesn’t own the land she tills.

A rail-thin mother of 11, she’s entitled to it under the new constitution adopted in 2010. That’s on paper. In reality, her husband, John, who no longer beats her and is letting her manage three acres of the family farm by herself, can’t imagine actually putting any of it in her name.

“My main problem since I got married has been land, and not having any control,” she says as she pours creamy tea in their tin-roof shack in the village of Oloolong’oi. “I want to get that control so I can feel secure, and my children too.”

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on marital status, allows mothers to pass citizenship to children and even sets gender quotas for elected posts. The real revolution is in its decree that women are equal to men when it comes to land, the prized resource in one of the world’s poorest countries.

More than three-quarters of Kenyans live outside cities, most of them on subsistence farms owned by men -- and, by tradition, worked by wives and daughters. Like women across the developing world, “they need land rights to achieve any equality,” says Soipan Tuya, a Kenyan lawyer with the U.S. nonprofit Landesa, which promotes property rights for the poor.


Men like John Sadera, a Masaai who guesses his age at 57, are the hurdles as Kenya writes constitutional laws and sets up a civil system to enforce them. That’ll take years, and he’s not rushing to give his wife any of his 20 acres in the meantime.

“I’m in charge,” he says, avoiding eye contact with her. “I’m the one who should own it for the whole family.”

The old constitution, adopted after independence from the U.K. in 1963, didn’t explicitly deny women land. It also didn’t trump the practices of Kenya’s 42 ethnic groups. Most have what Hubbie Hussein, co-founder of the nonprofit Womankind Kenya, calls “male-thinking” attitudes that see women as property. “It’s so deep-rooted it’s like a religion,” she says.

Male elders are sometimes shocked when asked to accept women among them, says Kenyan Chief Justice Willy Mutunga.

“They don’t believe that women should be represented in the council of elders,” he says. “A lot of women are opposed to the elders hearing disputes because they say in some disputes the elders will be insensitive to issues about women’s rights.”

Food Producers

Across Kenya, where 67 percent of people live on less than 170 shillings ($2) a day, women own only about 5 percent of the land and produce most of the food. Around the developing world, women are 43 percent of the agricultural labor force, United Nations statistics show. Women worldwide hold about 15 percent of the land, the UN says.

The gender gap is vast in sub-Saharan Africa, where some governments recognize customary laws that put men on a pedestal and deny women basic rights. With its constitution, Kenya is helping lead the way to removing barriers, and to easing poverty and stoking growth, says Sheryl WuDunn, co-author of “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.”

“Economies that are flexible enough to embrace women are highly correlated with economies that are flexible and open to innovation,” she says.

Land gives women access to capital, bargaining power in family disputes, freedom to leave abusive marriages and, especially in rural areas, a clear path to making a contribution to the economy, according to research by the World Bank and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

Growing Incomes

The next generation benefits because women tend to spend more than men on children, nutrition, education and health care, and incomes grow because they buy more fertilizers and seeds or start small businesses, the research shows.

“Men use the money for alcohol, marrying other women and other wastes,” Hussein says. “Women are left in poverty.”

In Oloolong’oi, a five-hour drive over pockmarked dirt roads from Nairobi, the Saderas both cast ballots for the constitution. Drafted as part of a peace accord after ethnic violence left 1,133 dead following the 2007 elections, its main purpose was to spread power more evenly among the ethnic groups. It was approved by 67 percent of voters.

Neither John nor Mary can read or write. They took the advice of village elders at the polls. He says he was astonished to learn what he’d voted for, and she says she was delighted. “I didn’t know I had any rights to stand up against him.”

Equal Opportunities

The constitution grants “equal opportunities in political, economic, cultural and social spheres.” It legalizes abortion if a mother’s health is in danger, reserves one-third of seats in lawmaking bodies for women, requires the top or deputy slots in all commissions to be filled by a female and bars bias in laws, customs and practices related to land, giving wives a share in matrimonial possessions.

“It turns the property exchange that happens at marriage, when women become the property of men, on its head,” says Renee Giovarelli, director of the Center for Women’s Land Rights at Seattle-based Landesa, which teaches people in Oloolong’oi and other villages in the Ol Pusimoru region about the constitution.

Now “women work on land with no income and no land rights,” she says. “It can be very much like slave labor.”

Mary Sadera, who took a Landesa course, wed in her teens, and puts her age at 45. “I would do things differently if I could go back in time,” she says, wearing a head-wrap adorned with letters spelling D&G, for the design house Dolce & Gabbana. “The earliest one should get married is 25.”

Changaa Spirit

Before her husband stopped drinking the local spirit called changaa about six years ago, he peddled the potatoes she grew and sold off farmland to pay for his habit. He beat her with sticks and chased her with his bow and arrow if she complained. He wouldn’t give her money to start a business, perhaps selling used clothes, that would help pay for school fees.

“Life has been tough on me,” she says. “It’s only now that I’m seeing a sign of hope for change.”

Listening to his wife, John Sadera doesn’t dispute her account. He says he’s changing his ways, in part because of what he’s learned about the constitution. He says Mary needs help with her duties, which include cooking, collecting the firewood, hauling the water and milking the two cows.

“I acknowledge she has a heavy load,” he says. “I can pay someone to bring the firewood.”

If he were to do any of the work himself, “people would think I was crazy,” he says. “There are very clear lines in terms of what a man and women should do.”

‘Idling’ Husband

Children know the rules. “I study, wash the utensils, sweep, get water from the river. So do my four sisters,” says Dorcas Kwamboka, 8, carrying spinach in a bag tied to a rope crossing her forehead. “I have one brother who is not told to do anything. He just goes out to play. It’s not good.”

Mary Sadera says her husband’s occupation is strolling to the center of town and “idling.” He says he runs errands, and that his main job is to gather family members at night and dictate their tasks for the next day. He holds most of the power, and she does most of the labor.

Land rights could change that equation, says Landesa’s Tuya, and also free women from dependence on men. “Single mothers, widows and unmarried women always lose out.”

Tuya, 34, is a single mother herself, and a Masaai. Her family wasn’t traditional, she says, and she and her three sisters and three brothers had the same opportunities. Her father, a retired teacher and politician, didn’t object when his wife got a driver’s license, nor when neighbors saw her behind the wheel “and thought my dad was crazy to allow it.”

Female Elders

Still, she’s trapped in the old system. In her village of Leshuta, communal land is being converted to private ownership, and her request for a plot hasn’t been heard. While her 2-year-old nephew is on the list of future deed-holders, she isn’t “because I’m not attached to a man,” she says. “It’s like women don’t exist unless a husband or father speaks for you.”

Tuya says that when she taught Landesa classes on the constitution in Ol Pusimoru she was diplomatic, telling villagers, “We just need to look at things differently to make our lives better.” Men got instruction in common-sense home economics: Don’t beat your wife, and she’ll be more productive; work together as partners, and your family will grow richer.

Some changes have been far-reaching in Ol Pusimoru, where about 2,000 people live without running water and with few electricity connections. Women speak at public meetings. Female elders are on the council that settles local disputes.

Life Altering

For Sarah Otuni, a mother of six who was married at 13 to a man 35 years her senior, the elders’ understanding of the constitution’s land provision could be life-altering: They sided with her when she demanded some of the hundreds of acres her husband owns, and he pledged to transfer plots to her next year.

“We didn’t know we had rights,” Otuni, 40, says from her shack, where she sells changaa, made of porridge and sugar.

John Sadera says he hopes he’ll be able to accept that his wife should own some of his land. “I know things are changing,” he says, “but it’s still hard for me.”

He recounts the story of a local polygamist whose wives and children abandoned him after the women acquired land deeds. If Mary owned property, he wonders, would she leave?

“I wouldn’t like to see that,” he says. “I know that my culture has to change, because women are human beings. I’m just not there yet.”

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