Skip to main content

LUSAKA, 19 DECEMBER 2022. The Institute for Poverty, Land, and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS)  continues to disseminate findings from its research on the privatisation of customary land and its implications for women’s land rights in Southern Africa. 

This action research aims to provide rural women, policymakers, and civil society organisations with the capacity, evidence, and platforms needed to promote policy formulation and implementation based on local practices and livelihood realities. The project is funded by the  Austrian Development Agency and is being implemented in Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe in partnership with civil society organisations in each country. In Zambia, PLAAS  is partnering with the Zambia Land Alliance (ZLA) to explore how the privatisation of land impacts women in the Nyimba District of the Eastern Province.  

On 8 December 2022, PLAAS and ZLA hosted a national policy dialogue in Lusaka, attended by  19 policymakers from various government departments, civil society organisations, research institutions, and traditional leaders. The institutions represented included the Ministry of Lands,  the Ministry of Agriculture, the Office of the Vice President, and the House of Chiefs. Others were  Women for Change, Disability Rights Watch, Non-Governmental Gender Organisations’ 

Coordinating Council, and the University of Zambia. Also in attendance was His Royal Highness,  Chief Ndake of the Nsenga-speaking people in Nyimba, where the research is being undertaken.

Zambia Land Alliance Executive Director, Patrick Musole, gives a presentation at the women’s land rights dialogue in Lusaka.

Dr Phillan Zamchiya, a senior researcher at PLAAS and principal investigator on the project,  presented findings from the research and said: “One of the most dramatic developments in Africa  today is the formalisation of property rights on land through boundary surveying and registration,  and documentation of customary land rights as a way to improve tenure security.” 

The research findings in Zambia show that Customary Land Holding Certificates (CLHCs) are issued in various chiefdoms. However, the CLHCs in the study site only cover residential and agricultural land and not common property resources. This exposes communities to the loss of forests, rivers, and graveyards. Zamchiya added that despite some claims, there is no evidence to conclusively support the effects of rural land registration on agricultural productivity and investments. Further, power relations over who controls land are not transformed regardless of the name registered on the CLHC, meaning that even when a CLHC is registered in a woman’s name, it does not translate into her having full control of her land.  

“It is important to note that ownership in the name of the certificate does not always transform the power relations over who controls the land”, said Zamchiya. 

As part of the presentation, Zamchiya screened a documentary highlighting women’s experiences with CLHCs. The documentary compares the experiences of women in Zambia and Mozambique,  where the government is registering customary land for individuals, communities, and investors.  The documentary showed that women’s experiences with registering customary land vary according to marital status. In Zambia, single women are excluded from owning land due to customary norms that only confer use rights over land, while married women access land through their spouses, which leaves them landless when they divorce or are widowed.

PLAAS Senior Researcher, Dr Phillan Zamchiya (c), with Chief Ndake from Nyimba district in Zambia (r) at the ZLA/PLAAS national policy dialogue workshop.

The ZLA Executive Director, Patrick Musole, said that although chiefdoms across the country were using different approaches to issue CLHCs, these documents are not recognised by the  1995 Lands Act nor the 2020 National Land Policy. He added that there was a need for policy recognition to increase the enforceability of the certificates. 

Barbara Mukuni of the Zambia Ministry of Agriculture agreed with the research findings and said that although women provide the bulk of the labour force in the agriculture sector, they lack access to productive resources such as land. She added that even when women have access to land,  they lack the power to decide what to grow.  

Barbara Mukuni from the Ministry of Agriculture called for the breakdown of power structures that prevent women from making decisions over their land.

In his keynote address, Wallace Nguluwe, Assistant Director of Planning in the Ministry of Lands,  said the government was trying to address the inequalities flagged by the research through the  Land Policy. It was also reviewing the Lands Act to ensure that it responded to prevailing land issues.  

”Whenever customary land is converted into state land, the first casualties are women, children,  youth, persons with disabilities, and the elderly, who usually have access to land through their spouses or male relatives. The impact on their livelihood is food insecurity and poor nutrition at household, community, and national levels. Socio-cultural, economic, and political contexts, as well as poor land administration and management, contribute to these poor outcomes,” said Nguluwe.  

The privatisation of customary land transforms land distribution by opening the land to market exploitation. This is exacerbated by increased demand for land from well-resourced urban elites 

and multinational corporations, as noted by Shadrick Chembe from Women for Change. He said:  “We’ve found that certificates concentrate land in the hands of the elite, excluding women, many  of whom are poor.” 

In the study site, a Chinese mining firm granted 430 hectares to mine granite displaced several families who required resettlement. Addressing this, Cooper Chibomba, Assistant Director in the  Office of the Vice President, Department of Resettlement, said some of the challenges faced in resettling displaced communities include disagreements on land boundaries between chiefdoms and resettlement schemes. He added that the department was working with traditional leaders to ensure synergy between resettlement schemes and the productive use of land. 

Civil society organisations, such as NGOCC and Disability Rights Watch, echoed the need for more to be done to break patriarchal structures in land ownership to ensure that women, who represent a large proportion of the population, are protected and their land rights upheld. In particular, David Mukwasa from Disability Rights Watch said access to information is key to participating in development. He said there was a need to make information more widely available and accessible, especially to the disabled. 

In response to the findings in his chiefdom, Chief Ndake said the objective of issuing CLHCs was to preserve family land and prevent the loss of land when the head of the household died. He said  CLHCs have helped achieve this, as well as enhancing tenure security and resolving land disputes in the chiefdom. 

Following the discussions, the key issues that emerged were: 


  • There is currently no evidence that access to CLHCs have improved productivity.
  • The CLHC comes with conditions and is designed to conform to customs, including family values.  
  • The chief retains authority over the land even when an individual holds a CLHC.

Land policy 

  • The land policy framework does not adequately provide for the recognition and protection of the rights of customary landholders. 
  • The land policy and implementation framework do not provide deliberate policy direction on securing rights on customary land. This is partly due to the constitutional requirement that the state stays clear of customary land administration. 

Gender, cultural norms, and gender guidelines 

  • Traditional leaders are key in promoting gender equality in land under chiefdoms.
  • There is a need to promote traditional practices that advance women’s land rights.
  • There is a need to establish chiefdom rules for quota allocations of land.
  • The gender guidelines formulated by the House of Chiefs have not reached every chief. 
  • There is a need to ensure every chief has access to the guidelines and begins to use them after understanding the content.
  • Traditional leaders should collaborate with gender organisations to disseminate the guidelines and train the people in their administrative areas. The priority should be inexpensive means of sensitisation that will work within existing structures.

Resettlement schemes 

  • The Resettlement Department is providing new opportunities for women to access land,  improving the resettlement policy, and implementing affirmative measures for women,  youths, and persons with disabilities. 
  • Traditional leaders are unhappy with the performance of resettlement schemes. They have asked the department to proactively engage with the House of Chiefs in the future,  especially if a project which has earmarked 20,000 hectares of land for resettlement schemes goes ahead.  

Agricultural productivity  

  • People with disabilities who received targeted support with livestock are doing better than other cooperatives and demonstrated more productivity. 
  • The House Chiefs recognised that increased access to land for women could increase productivity. 

Land markets 

  • Elite concentration increases the divide between the poor and the privileged.
  • Most rural women are poor and cannot participate in the market. Therefore, the privatization of land further threatens their land rights. 

The research is ongoing, and Zamchiya informed the policymakers that the women who participated in the study would validate the findings as a true reflection of their experiences. He added that the project aims to develop a regional framework that compares the impact of the privatization of customary land in the four focus countries and develop lessons and best practices for protecting women’s land rights in Africa. 

Based on the research findings and discussion, the policymakers made the following  recommendations: 

  • There is a need to document communal land rights under CLHCs. 
  • Civil society must take advantage of the review of the resettlement policy to strengthen land rights protection mechanisms, e.g. standards for compensation. 
  • Due consideration must be made to gender equity and not women empowerment because targeting women has proved to have a negative effect on women themselves.
  • The House of Chiefs should be more actively engaged in addressing the issues that border on customary land rights. 
  • There is a need to expedite the land audit to ascertain the amount of customary land still available. 
  • A mechanism for giving legal effect to CLHCs may be needed to facilitate a national rollout, but it must be within the constitution’s limits. 
  • Young people’s low uptake of land and CLHCs requires deeper inquiry into the attitude and orientation of youths towards land and its associated challenges. 
  • Addressing the land rights of persons with disabilities must consider the historical marginalisation they have suffered, starting with the discrimination that persons with disabilities continue to face, including access to, ownership, and control of customary land.
  • There is a need to address the information barriers for persons with disabilities as they are rarely invited to community sensitisation meetings on land matters. This includes ensuring that CLHCs and other materials are in accessible formats. 
  • Access to and control of customary land by persons with disabilities requires that their precarious situation is attended to through financial inclusion, livelihood empowerment,  and social protection measures. 
  • Traditional leaders must be sensitive to the double discrimination women with disabilities face in enjoying their land rights. 
  • There is a need to support women with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities.
  • There is a need to improve data collection on persons with disabilities.
  • The House of Chiefs has developed gender guidelines for traditional leaders, a governance tool which needs to be implemented effectively to protect rights and must be contextualized. This tool can also serve as a monitoring mechanism.
  • Increasing women’s participation in customary land administration structures is necessary.
  • Ban harmful cultural practices that disadvantage women’s access to land and promote  positive practices. 
  • There is a need to allocate more land to women and vulnerable groups.
  • Promote joint land ownership. 
  • Implement zero tolerance for land grabbed from widows and widowers.
  • Support exchange visits and information sharing among chiefdoms. 
  • Data on mapping and documentation of land ownership should be sex-disaggregated.
  • Implement annual reporting on access to land between women and men. 

The discussion ended with a call to action for all policymakers to ensure that their work focused on protecting women’s land rights while upholding international land governance standards and being awake to the lived experiences of women who eke a living on customary land.  


For interviews and further information about CLHCs and the research in Zambia, please contact  the following:  

For further information about the PLAAS study, please contact: 

Dr. Phillan Zamchiya, Senior Researcher: 


Issued by the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies 

About PLAAS 

PLAAS is an independent Policy Research Institute within the Faculty for Economic and  Management Sciences at the University of the Western Cape. 

About Zambia Land Alliance 

ZLA is a network of NGOs working for pro-poor land rights and justice in land policies. The alliance was formed during a process of land reform in the 1990s and engages in lobbying and advocacy for secured access, control, and ownership over land. 

 About Austrian Development Cooperation  

 Austrian Development Cooperation supports countries in Africa, Asia, South Eastern, and Eastern  Europe in their sustainable development. The Federal Ministry for European and International  Affairs plans the strategies. The Austrian Development Agency (ADA), the operational unit of the  Austrian Development Cooperation, implements programmes and projects together with public institutions, civil society organisations as well as enterprises.