How NGOs can better support land rights for women

Oxfam CEO Mark Goldring at the Malakal IDP camp in South Sudan. Photo by: Simon Rawles / Oxfam

Less than an estimated 20 percent of land in the world is owned by women — yet those few women who do own land are reported to see benefits.

Their children are 33 percent less likely to be severely underweight, 10 percent less likely to be sick and these women are eight times less likely to experience domestic violence. Other studies suggest women with strong property rights earn up to 3.8 percent more income and dedicate more of their budget to education.

So how can global development professionals and NGOs do more to support improved land rights for women?

Following a panel discussion on the subject at the Thomson Reuters Foundation Trust Women conference in London, we caught up with Oxfam GB CEO Mark Goldring to learn more about what the organization is doing to tackle the issue — and how other nongovernmental organizations can follow suit.

Below are some highlights from our conversation.

What approaches is Oxfam taking to land rights and which ones work best?

Oxfam is working on land rights in a range of different ways, many of which are situation-specific. Sometimes the approach is part of a wider program on economic development, especially women’s economic opportunities. Other times it’s a stand-alone activity where we’re working with other partners who could be anything from legal rights centers to bigger networks and coalitions.

How should NGOs judge which approach to take?

At Oxfam we believe only talking about land rights, and ownership is not necessarily the best way. It’s also not best to talk about legal rights on their own because if you’re dealing with legal rights, you’re missing the whole issue of social status. Some women are forced into situations where, no matter what the law says, they can’t enforce it. So we believe a holistic approach for women’s status that includes legal rights is the most effective way of working, and legal rights includes land rights. We often see land rights as an integral part of a wider program.

For example, I’ve seen situations where women are in theory protected by the law, such as inheritance, dowry or family law, or the laws that affect what happens to a woman when her husband dies. But they aren’t necessarily as strong as social pressures and she has to live in her community.

It’s also important to remember that when looking at land rights, the issue isn’t just about the right of ownership. In many situations the land a woman uses most is customary-owned land, or its communal land, and either of those situations means having security to use land might well be more important than trying to own it as an individual.

Finally, NGOs need to remember issues surrounding land use, such as training. Usually it’s men who receive training. They also usually get the credit schemes, loans and saving schemes. So looking at land on its own might not be enough.

What are you particularly concentrating on at Oxfam?

Right now we’re concerned with the increased commercialization of agriculture. That can be a positive force — it can bring people an income and infrastructure. But it’s potentially threatening, because as agriculture is commercialized, men tend to capture the benefits. If you start with an unequal society, commercializing agriculture makes that even more unequal. Women’s crops tend to be subsistence crops. The money begins to come when the men take over.

To work on those issues, in 2013 Oxfam developed a Behind the Brands program. This looks at the relationship between major food companies and the rights, lives and environments of local people through a range of different factors, of which women’s rights and land rights are one.

We scored the agricultural sourcing policies of the world's 10 largest food and beverage companies. We used more than 200 indicators to judge them on seven issues: transparency at a corporate level; women farm workers and small-scale producers in the supply chain; workers on farms in the supply chain; small-scale farmers growing the commodities; land, both rights and access to land and sustainable use of it; water, both rights and access to water resources and sustainable use of it; and climate, both relating to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and helping farmers adapt to climate change.

Through this work we’re trying to influence companies because they’re influencing land ownership.

What impact is the project having?

Our analysis is ongoing and shows every company has improved since it launched. The leaders are Unilever and Nestlé who were already strong, but they strengthened their work, especially in terms of women. Coca-Cola, probably the biggest food company in the world, signed up not only to abide by the requirements of free, prior and informed consent to land, but now also requires all of its supply chain to do so.

How easy is it for an NGO to engage companies and try to influence them on an issue such as land rights?

When you’ve got 700,000 people engaging with the social media of those companies, it makes it a lot easier. We regularly meet companies and have dialogue with them. Some of them engage closely, some of them don’t want to engage. But we’ve found with some of the ones that don’t want to engage, their shareholders can encourage them to engage. Many companies that didn’t want to engage with us at first have now made really strong declarations on land rights and women’s rights.

We know that even if there are laws and structures in place, it doesn’t mean women benefit from these on the ground. So how do you ensure the big companies are honoring their declarations?

We don’t go and inspect individual sites. But part of their scoring and signing up to those conditions is they’re required to develop and action plan. For example, 40 percent of the cocoa in the world is bought by three companies who are within the 10 listed on Behind the Brands. Those three we felt from the initial research were quite gender-blind in terms of the different relationships of men and women to the cocoa supply chain. They scored badly. All three of them subsequently agreed to develop an action plan and they’ve now delivered them. It’s not good enough just to sign a global convention or to sign up to a fair trade or environmental agreement. We’re saying: What’s your action plan and how are you monitoring it?

How does the project interact with governments in different countries?

The law of each country you have to obey. But if you’re signing up to free, prior and informed consent you’re saying even if the government allows you to sign up, you won’t do it without the consent of the community. That’s very important. This takes companies beyond the law.

Should other NGOs do the same thing, perhaps looking at other industries?

This technique promotes transparency, commitment to action and engages organizations in dialogue with companies. Different NGOs will have different sets of interests and one of the things companies are scared of is every NGO lobbying them to sign up to every single set of conventions. But we tried to pick the really global companies that people see as leading in the future.

Which donors are interested in funding projects focusing on land rights?

Behind the Brands was funded directly by Oxfam. There are a lot of donors, including the U.K. Department for International Development, that fund on land rights and land registration. But no donor has come forward to fund something like Behind the Brands. Raising money for policy and governance work that doesn’t involve direct village-level activity is difficult.

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  • Gabriella jozwiak profile

    Gabriella Jóźwiak

    Gabriella Jóźwiak is an award-winning journalist based in London. Her work on issues and policies affecting children and young people in developing countries and the U.K. has been published in national newspapers and magazines. Having worked in-house for domestic and international development charities, Jóźwiak has a keen interest in organizational development, and has worked as a journalist in several countries across West Africa and South America.