Source: Lesotho Times

Lockdown restrictions aimed at fighting the Covid-19 pandemic in Lesotho have had an unintended adverse negative impact of undermining women's customary land rights, a regional human rights body has found.

The organisation, Advancing Rights in Southern Africa (ARISA), said its research on the impact of Covid-19 on women's customary land rights and livelihoods in southern Africa found that lockdown restrictions had worsened violations of women's customary land rights in the region.

In Lesotho, this had been done through the scaling down of court operations had denied women access to whenever they were dispossessed of their land and unjustly evicted by their male counterparts, ARISA found.

In addition, ARISA found that limitations placed on the movement of citizens meant that many could not travel to the courts or other administrative and quasi-judicial institutions to have their legal issues addressed.

The human rights body therefore called on Lesotho and other regional governments to revisit the lockdown measures to ensure that the women's land rights are not undermined by the Covid-19 pandemic and other disasters.

During Lesotho's hard lockdown from 30 March to 5 May 2020, the country's borders with South Africa were shut down and cross-border travel was banned. Inter district movements were also banned except for exceptional cases like those of people travelling for medical services. Most economic activities were also banned during the lockdown.

The courts also announced a scaling down of operations which saw the magistrates' court only attending to what it considered as urgent cases, bail hearings and remands for suspects facing criminal charges.

This-according to ARISA- has had an adverse impact on women's access to the justice system to protect their customary land rights. The report is titled: "Impact of COVID-19 on Women's Customary Land Rights and Livelihoods in Southern Africa".

"In a reported case, a Mosotho woman was disinherited of customary land that belonged to her deceased father in favour of a man who claimed to be the male heir of the land," ARISA states in its report.

"The woman was unable to bring witnesses before the elders to support and defend her claim that she was the biological daughter of the deceased and was therefore the rightful heir to the customary land.

"This was because her witnesses were resident in South Africa and were unable to travel to Lesotho as a result of the border closures in response to COVID-19. Her witnesses were also unable to appear before the elders virtually because there were no appropriate means of facilitating the connection between rural Lesotho and the witnesses. The woman in question was therefore denied her right to inherit and access customary land during the lockdown as the available justice mechanism could not provide the needed facilities for her case to be heard," ARISA said.

The human rights body said in Lesotho, although the legalisation of the growing of medical cannabis in 2017 had provided women with an opportunity to earn money through renting their land to large scale cannabis farmers, their rights to the land had been affected by male relatives who used customary laws to lay claim to the land after realising that it was now lucrative.

"When government started the cannabis programme, women's rights organisations in the country engaged government to ensure that lease opportunities were given to land holders based on equality between men and women, with a focus on widows. The organisations agreed with government that widows would be allowed to engage the cannabis growers to negotiate leases on the customary land that they held, and that no male relatives would be involved.

"This followed a realisation that because women could not be heirs to customary land, families were appointing male figures to be the leads in land lease negotiations with the cannabis producers, with the rentals accruing to the male figureheads. The lucrative nature of the project meant that male relatives had become overly interested in the land and the projects, even in situations where they had not shown any interest before.

"Customary law was therefore being invoked to remind women that they could not enter into the lease agreements over customary land with the cannabis production companies, without the consent of the male members of their extended families.

"The intervention of women's rights organisations in Lesotho to protect the customary lands rights of women in the country was therefore an important initiative in ensuring that long held prejudicial customs about women and their rights to customary land would not be used to disadvantage them in light of the lucrative cannabis land leases.

"This was particularly important given that for most of the women, such land is their only source of livelihood, even though customary law does not give them control over such land. It was also one of the few times that the women in the country were able to benefit commercially from customary land," ARISA notes.

Although women's rights organisations in Lesotho had begun efforts to fight for women's rights, such efforts were affected by the restrictions imposed to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

"The case study from Lesotho illustrates that the pandemic had the impact of reversing gains achieved in that country in the promotion and protection of women's customary land rights...

"Lesotho was the last country in Africa to record a Covid-19 case (on 13 May 2020).

"It however put in place stringent Covid-19 regulations well before recording any case, including being one of the first countries in Africa to close its borders for fear of importing the disease from South Africa.

"A state of emergency was declared on 18 March 2020 and various regulations and legal notices were subsequently promulgated over time. The notice of the state of emergency which was published on 27 March 2020 outlined the closure of many businesses except those providing essential goods and services. The notice specifically stated that supermarkets and grocery shops would remain open but mentioned no other places such as open markets and vending sites that normally sell food and food products.

"The initial legal notice missed, neglected or deliberately left out specific provisions that would protect rural women farmers and agricultural produce traders in the context of Covid-19. Efforts by the small-scale farmers and informal food traders to continue with their business would therefore have been a violation of the lockdown regulations. The conclusion that can be drawn from all these regulations is that they failed to protect rural women's customary land-based livelihoods, hence the need for the regulations to be reviewed to ensure protection of these rights," ARISA states in its report.

The human rights body therefore urged Lesotho and other regional governments to "balance the public health interventions for Covid-19 with the need to protect citizens' socio-economic rights".

"Governments must protect citizens' rights to access to justice particularly in the context of Covid-19 and other emergencies, where rights violations are likely to escalate and governments must protect women's customary land rights by ensuring protection from land dispossessions and evictions in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and other disasters," ARISA said.

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