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DRC: An Inaccessible Wealth

Afymab
Posted June 16, 2016 from Democratic Republic of the Congo

Women work the land. Why can’t they own it?

When Gaby wakes up, she goes to work in the fields. At 63, her body no longer bears the weight of agricultural work. She has been weakened by years of long days plowing, coupled with poor living conditions and poor access to health care. At the end of the day she goes back home and cooks for the household. She works to feed her niece and five of her niece’s nine children who live with her.

Gaby is my aunt—my father’s older sister. Her story would be my story if I had been born in the village like 80% of my family.

If Gaby had had adult children, they would have taken care of her so she would not have to work in the field. That's how it works in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But Gaby divorced and has no children.

The fields where Gaby works do not belong to her. She rents them from the chief of the locality where she lives, far from her native village. The current law on land ownership states that everyone has the right to land by purchase or by inheritance. But this provision is only known and respected in large urban centers. For people in rural areas land is managed by traditional chiefs. In the custom of Gaby’s tribe in the Équateur Province, inheritance is only for men.

If Gaby had been able to inherit land following the death of her father, she would not be in this situation. She would have inherited part of a 200 hectare palm oil plantation that our family has owned for generations. She could plow her own fields and sell products from cultivating her own land. She could use that money to get treatment for her ailments at the main hospital of the region, which is located more than 300 kilometers from her home village.

The difference between my life and Gaby’s is that my father sent me to school just like my brothers. When Gaby grew up in the 1940s and 50s, only the men of the village went to school. Her father, my grandfather, wanted all of his children to go to school—a first in the village. But Gaby, like some of her siblings, preferred to stay home and take care of her father and work in the palm plantation rather than study 250 kilometers from home.

When Gaby divorced her husband, she returned to her family empty-handed. When her father died, she had nothing, according to the customary law. Her older brother, now deceased, became the main administrator of the inheritance from their father. His male children now manage the family plantation and land. The legacy is handed down from father to son. It's tradition, and it's just the way it is.

The first time I met Gaby I was 16. She was sick and my father told her to come to the capital so she could get decent medical treatment. She was so kind and amazing, we didn't want her to go back to the village after her treatment. We kept her five years more than she intended to stay. But she insisted on going back to the land she knows better.

Even though Gaby comes from a wealthy family, she will die poor and sick. She lives on donations from her brother, sisters, nephews, and nieces. Too proud and embarrassed to ask for money or assistance, she prefers to fade away rather than disturb her family, refusing to become a weight for them.

Gaby’s destiny could have been my destiny. It is the destiny of my cousins, nieces, and the majority of women living in the rural area in my country. But it doesn’t need to be.

Women like Gaby are the foundation of the family. They must have access to land just as men do.

Our customs must evolve and recognize the contributions of women. Women represent a real hub of the economy of our country. If women own land, there will be less need to import subsistence goods.

On the environmental front, women are crucial in the fight against deforestation. Currently, when land can no longer be cultivated, women are obliged to burn the forest and cultivate in the space cleared. When they own their land, they won’t need to burn the forest. Instead, they will use sustainable farming techniques, putting less pressure on the forest and natural resources.

This is my fight. With the support and help of my friends, I am conducting an advocacy project to reform the current land law. We want the laws to protect women’s land ownership in rural areas, where custom is now the only legal rule.

We are working so that women like Gaby can own their own land and become financially independent. We are working so that women can easily transmit their knowledge of the culture of the earth to the next generation.

Comments 9

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Olutosin
Jun 18, 2016
Jun 18, 2016

This ​made me cry because its same story here too. Thank God for your type. May your tribe increase. Amen

Emmanuella Akinola
Jun 18, 2016
Jun 18, 2016

Hmm! Although I live in the city I share in your passion. In the igbo tribe in nigeria were I am from women are not also allowed to own property. This is has trapped many women in abusive relationship for economic reasons. May we all live to see women owning where they plow.

helen.ng
Jun 20, 2016
Jun 20, 2016

It is astounding as to how being born in just slightly different circumstances may bring about variously differing fates! It's horrible to hear of how Gaby was unable to inherit the land and improve her quality of life, and how she must live off of the donations from her family members. 

Rgitum
Jun 21, 2016
Jun 21, 2016

Hi Afymab the story about your aunty Garby resonates with many  african women.How sad that your Aunty cannot access quality healthcare in her age because a) she cannot afford b) affordable health care is not available! yet this is a country endowed with rich minerals!

Alexandra Fercak
Jun 22, 2016
Jun 22, 2016

This is a great paragraph in your article: "Our customs must evolve and recognize the contributions of women. Women represent a real hub of the economy of our country. If women own land, there will be less need to import subsistence goods."

So very true! Thank you for an excellent article and highlighting this important issue. I will be following your endeavors in this area. Good luck with the advocacy project. 

Take care,

Alexandra 

Lily Habesha
Jan 20, 2017
Jan 20, 2017

My Dear, When i went to visit my grand aunt, she dig with the husband, she cultivate, she carry water and came back ...on a big play pot from the place near from the farm,...walking with the husband.. Then she started cooking. To cook Ethiopian bread is...like digging a gold mine...a long process, tiring...the fire burning like heal...bread, stew, boiling cereials, and serve him. He washes his feet and sit to be served. And if he was like my father, he could sit and waited for her to wash his feet. We had to wash his feet every evening, if the children or we are not there, Mom volunteered to wash his feet.

Lily Habesha
Jan 20, 2017
Jan 20, 2017

Women should own the LAND!!!!

Araba
Jul 06, 2018
Jul 06, 2018

My dear, this is a good cause that you are fighting for.
To change the narratives of women's access to land is very important for the survival of rural women especially. I have been involved in activism to get better laws and policies pushed in favour of women. I want to get involve in your crusade in any possible ways that i can, to share some of my experience in pushing for law reforms for the welfare of women.

Naseem shaikh
Jul 08
Jul 08

very inspiring story i connect with my work