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One Major Change: Women's Right to Land

THE greatest beneficiaries of Eritrea's efforts to build a new society are likely to be its women.

Traditionally, they are married off at puberty under a system of arranged marriages negotiated at birth and then prevented from social interaction outside the family except with the husband's permission.

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The new government has sought to ban child marriages, dowry payments, and the widely practiced form of genital mutilation known euphemistically as ``female circumcision.''

But officials say that placing all Eritrean women in the rarefied atmosphere of gender equality in the armed forces and the construction brigades will profoundly alter traditional practices in ways that legislation could not.

A new law gives women (whether married or not) equal rights with men to use residential and agricultural land. This provides a powerful economic basis for changes in their status.

Previously, land was held by communities and periodically rotated among male members. Single, divorced, or widowed women, lacking access to land in this overwhelmingly agrarian society, were forced to live with their parents or migrate to the cities, where many turned to prostitution as a last resort.

One reason the land law so singularly focuses on women's rights, according to Askalu Menkarios, head of the National Union of Eritrean Women, is that shortly after the war ended, men in many rural villages began forming secret committees to block women from getting land. ``The men were rushing to divide the good land for housing and for agriculture before we established our rights,'' she says.

She concedes, however, ``There is no similar campaign to promote equal rights in the workplace or to defend the hard-won gains made by my women fighters, who now find it extremely difficult to return home to villages where they are considered unmarriageable due to their self-assertiveness.''

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