Yolanda Ngunda has every reason to smile now she holds a title deed recognising her as sole owner of a disputed plot of rugged farmland in Tanzania's remote southern highlands.
For the past decade, the 51-year-old widow, who lives in Ilalasimba village in the rural district of Iringa, was embroiled in a family feud as her brothers-in-law tried to grab her land and kick her out of a brick house she built with her late husband who died after a short illness.
“I have been living in fear all those years because I did not have any document that supported my land rights claim. I have now won the battle,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, proudly displaying her certificate printed on pale-green paper.
Ngunda, who has four children, is among hundreds of Ilalasimba residents who have secured land titles thanks to a pilot project funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Ngunda said her brothers-in-law had even threatened to set her house on fire. “But I stood firm to defend my children’s property,” she said proudly.
Iringa is one of many areas in Tanzania where there are cases of property grabs involving widows, rights activists say.
The prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the region has made many widows susceptible to losing their property as family members who know little about the disease accuse them of killing their husbands to inherit property.
Tanzanian law grants women the same rights as men to access, own and control land, and allows them to participate in decision-making on land matters. But only 20 percent of women possess land in their own names, according to USAID.
Customary norms have made it hard for women to obtain land in their own right. Instead many access it through their spouses or male relatives, meaning they often end up losing it if those men die.
In an effort to help Tanzania’s authorities secure village land rights, USAID launched a project to map geographic and demographic data using mobile phone technology, with the aim of speeding up land rights registration.
The “Mobile Application to Secure Tenure (MAST)” project enables villagers to identify property boundaries and gather the information officials need to issue land ownership documents.
Launched in 2014, the $1 million project, implemented by the Cloudburst Group, a U.S.-based consulting firm, has simplified the process of documenting land rights while making it more transparent and effective, USAID officials said.
Land registration in Tanzania is a cumbersome process, riddled by corruption and mismanagement, which is why most people lack formal rights to their land, according to Transparency International’s 2013 Global Corruption Barometer.
Karol Boudreaux, a land tenure expert with the Cloudburst Group, said the MAST project is designed to be participatory so that it raises awareness among women about their right to own and inherit land, while equipping village leaders with skills to resolve disputes.
“We have recognised that these rights have not been well understood in some places,” Boudreaux told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, noting that widows in particular face barriers to owning and inheriting land.
The project trains a small group of young villagers to use a mobile application on Android-based smartphones to document land rights.
“We needed to work with people who are literate and comfortable using smartphones to map and document land parcels,” Boudreaux said.
To avoid conflicts, the tech-savvy mappers must ensure that land owners or their representatives and neighbours are present during the process. The information is then uploaded to an online database where officials can access and validate it to issue title deeds.
“I am very happy to ... get the opportunity to learn how to resolve land-related conflicts,” said 23-year-old Ilalasimba resident Jacqueline Nyantalima. “This is a very important exercise since it helps women secure their land rights.”
According to USAID, the young people, who work jointly with village leaders, have registered land parcels and helped issue titles for 940 people. Plans are underway to expand the project to two other villages soon.
Women in Ilalasimba now have greater security for their property, as 30 percent of land has been registered in their names, USAID officials said. Another 40 percent has been registered jointly to men and women, and 30 percent to men alone.
“I was inferior, but I am now very confident after getting my title deed,” said Ngunda. “I know my children’s future is bright since nobody will ever dare take this land away.”
Deadly conflicts over land have raged for decades in Tanzania as farmers and livestock herders jostle to use water resources that are dwindling due to recurring drought and poor management.
Adam Nyaruhuma, coordinator of the land tenure support programme at Tanzania’s Ministry of Land, said mapping land rights with modern technology had the potential to diffuse land disputes while widening chances for rural communities to use their land productively.
“The advantage of this programme is that once the land is formalised, it opens up a lot of opportunities for villagers who might be able to use their title deeds as collateral to secure bank loans,” Nyaruhuma said.