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In Ethiopia, formal laws assert that women have equal rights regarding land use and access. However, the pastoral areas are often highly influenced by religious and customary systems under which women tend to have weaker land rights. The report “Women’s land rights: customary rules and formal laws in the pastoral areas of Ethiopia – complementary or in conflict? (ILRI Rangelands Research Report 4, 2021, 35pp) by Abebaw Abebe Belay and Fiona Flintan aims to understand women’s land rights under formal and customary legal systems, how these systems are applied and their impact on the ground. The study focuses on two pastoral areas of Ethiopia: Afar and Borana. It starts with a literature review of Ethiopian policy and legislation, followed by results from fieldwork to determine how formal policy and legislation interact with related customary rules, regulations and institutions.

The research found great disparity between what formal laws state and what is practised on the ground. In Afar, where society is gradually changing but remains more patriarchal, the customary and religious systems allow women inferior access to land in comparison to men, regardless of what Ethiopia’s formal laws state. Women can generally use communal grazing areas without limitation, but customary norms prevent them from accessing rural private holdings. In Borana society, which is less patriarchal, women have relatively equal status to men in terms of land use and access. Many Borana women have private plots and participate directly in managing communal land. However, discrimination against women continues concerning land inheritance.

Overall, limitations to women’s land rights arise mainly in relation to Private land ownership, dispute settlement and land inheritance. To address these issues, legal pluralism is recommended in the short term because it provides additional avenues for land users, including women, to access their land rights. In the long term, the Ethiopian Government should seek a convergence of the customary and formal systems, while raising awareness among pastoralist communities – epecially women – about their formal land rights, as well as providing free legal aid to invoke these rights.