The Honourable Mention of the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy was awarded to the Coalition of Women Farmers (COWFA) in Malawi

©Malawi. COWFA, 2010

The Coalition of Women Farmers (COWFA) in Malawi is awarded the 2010 Honourable Mention of the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy for its Women Land Rights Project (WOLAR)

Changing land ownership and power relations through women’s literacy

In many parts of the world, women are the major producers of food and have a critical role in providing for their households. However, it is very often men who own and administer land and the income it generates. Disparities in land access are one of the main causes for gender inequalities in rural areas, thus endangering rural food security as well as the well-being of individuals and their families.

In Malawi, four out of every five people live in rural areas, where women provide most of the agricultural labour and the food – seven out of ten agricultural workers are women. But the number of women with full access to the means of production – land and seeds – is almost insignificant. Only four per cent of Malawian women own the land they work on. And even though Malawian women are by tradition the producers of crops, they are the most vulnerable to hunger: portions are served to men and children first, women eat last. In a country which has recently suffered a food crisis and starvation, recognizing women’s property rights is crucial to fighting hunger and ultimately contributing to poverty alleviation and development.

Many national constitutions recognize that men and women have equal rights to land, but the everyday reality is quite different. Malawian women are treated as less than equal and women’s illiteracy tends to perpetuate gender inequality. This is where the Women Land Rights Project comes in. It assists poor women farmers in Malawi to acquire ownership and control over land and promotes their economic independence and food security. By acquiring literacy skills and by participating in briefing circles, Malawian women are learning to challenge discriminatory practices and gaining the confidence to change power relations on land issues. As Nobel Prize Laureate, Amartya Sen states, “Women’s education strengthens women’s agency and also tends to make it more informed and skilled. The ownership of property can also make women more powerful in family decisions.”

 “The association has taught us to be self-reliant,” says Evelyn Mwafulriwa, a farmer from the Coalition of Women Farmers. “There’s no difference between the women who are on their own and women with husbands.” Thabo Chidimba, who is also part of the COWFA, adds “What I like most about this group is that we can share our technical knowledge. We support one another and, most importantly, grow enough food to eat.”

Reinforcing Sen’s words, the Women Land Rights Project shows how land ownership and management represents real economic empowerment for women, thus impacting on the well being of everyone – men, women and children – in rural communities and society as a whole.

Camilla Addey

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