Women Are Climbing Africa’s Highest Peak to Fight for Land Rights

Organizers of the Mt. Kilimanjaro ascent promise to take “the issues of rural women farmers to the top.”
(Photo: Women to Kilimanjaro/Flickr)
Oct 7, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

In acts of resistance and solidarity, U.S. protesters have crossed bridges, marched to the seashore, and assembled at the reflecting pool of the nation’s capital. Mass protests are always symbolic, but on Oct. 10, a group of 30 women farmers will challenge the status quo with an attempt to move mountains by scaling Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak.

“We are not just climbing the mountain,” tweeted ActionAid, the organizer of the climb. “We are taking the issues of rural women farmers to the top.”

The key issue is land rights for women. As much as 80 percent of agricultural production in Africa comes from women farmers, yet laws and social customs throughout the continent block their ability to own land. In sub-Saharan Africa, women own less than 1 percent of the land. Inheritance laws often bypass women: When a woman’s husband dies, for example, his family can arrive to claim the land, leaving a woman without a place to live or means to produce food or income.

In addition to the tangible realities, land also has symbolic weight.

“Land is not only a source of food, employment and income,” Layla Al-Zubaidi, a director at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, wrote in an editorial. “It also gives social prestige and access to political power. Land has long been recognised as key to advancing the socio-economic rights and wellbeing of women and their position in society.”

The land at the base of snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro will serve as the meeting place for 2,000 rural women on the morning of Oct. 14, just as the climbers are expected to reach the 19,336-foot summit. At a three-day assembly, delegates will draft a charter of demands regarding women’s access to and control over land and resources, including informed consent for all communities affected by land transfers. In preparation, rural women have organized country-level “mini Kilis” that produced national charters. They will present the charter to the United Nations, the African Union, and the African Rural Women Assembly.

In addition to the women farmers, 15 “solidarity climbers” from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, the European Union, and Canada will also make the trek. Intrepid Travel partnered with ActionAid on the trip, and $500 from each of the bookings went toward supporting a farmer’s climb.

“I am there as a witness to what the women farmers are doing,” said Anna Kiefer of San Antonio. “It’s a solidarity climb. I’m just an ordinary person. But sometimes it can be nice to know that regular people are rooting for you too as you’re trying to do the difficult job of changing culture.”

In some countries, cultural customs may directly conflict with laws that call for equal land rights between men and women. In Tanzania, home to Mount Kilimanjaro, a new constitutional clause adopted in 2014, which explicitly gave the law precedence to override customary practices that weakened women’s land rights, was met with cheers.

Studies show the effects of enforcing such laws are numinous. According to Landesa, a land rights group, women who hold property contribute a greater proportion of income to the household, exercise greater control over agricultural income, are more likely to receive credit, and allocate a larger proportion of the household budget to food. Children are half as likely to be severely underweight and more likely to attain higher levels of education if their mother owns land.

Such effects have powered Kiefer through months of training on the stair climber, rowing machine, and stationary bike and on hikes through Texas state parks—and she suspects it will see her all the way to the top.

“Mount Kilimanjaro wasn’t necessarily on my bucket list of things to do, but the reason they’re climbing is incredibly motivating to me,” she said. “It makes me want to train, and it’s going to make me want to continue to keep going.”

“I feel like it’s my honor to be there.”