A farmer among thick rice stalks in Laguna, Philippines. Improving land rights, especially for women, is seen as a key strategy to reduce poverty and hunger. Photo by: IRRI Images / CC BY-NC-SA

Why do you care about women’s land rights? Isn’t it enough for the household to have land?

This question is a common refrain heard from many corners of the developing world, but most disturbingly from policymakers and government officials.

The answer, extensive research tells us, is threefold. Secure land rights for women:

Reduce poverty and vulnerability

Having rights to land reduces the chance a family will fall into poverty because secure land often means a secure food source. It is also an important form of collateral. Unfortunately, even a married woman can be vulnerable, because marriages are not “forever.”

In many societies, women’s land rights are derived through their male relatives, whether through their fathers or husbands. A husband’s death or divorce often results in a women’s loss of access to land. In societies where women leave their home villages to marry, a women’s property rights in the new village are very tenuous, leaving not only her, but her children, vulnerable; a woman who returns to her parents is often greeted with shame.

Indeed, during the 2007–‘08 global food price crisis, women heads of household in Ethiopia reported more than men that their assets, household income, and consumption had fallen due to high food prices. Because female-headed households are also poorer and cannot meet their families’ food needs for a greater number of months than male heads of household, they coped by cutting back on the number of meals they provided their households during good months and by eating food that they would not normally eat, such as food gathered in the wild.

We also found that households that owned larger amounts of land, as well as more high-quality land, were more protected against high food prices. Strengthening women’s ability to own and control land, particularly land of high quality, is therefore key to protecting the rural poor from food price shocks.

Increase women’s incentives to manage their land more sustainably by planting trees and adopting more sustainable farming techniques

IFPRI’s work in Ghana showed that women were more likely to plant cocoa trees on land on which they had secure, private property rights. When women were less secure about their land rights, long-term practices like tree planting fell by the wayside and they shortened crop rotations to boost short-term production, leaving less time for the land to lay fallow and regain its fertility. Also in Ghana, Markus Goldstein of the World Bank and Chris Udry of Yale University found that women whose  land rights were less secure were less likely to leave their land fallow because they risk losing it if they are not actively farming.

Work by Klaus Deininger and other colleagues at the World Bank, undertaken just after a land registration effort in Ethiopia that strengthened women’s land rights, found that the registration led to a higher incidence of households undertaking new land-related investments, specifically tree planting and using soil conservation techniques. A follow-up survey by IFPRI six years after the land registration found that households with more registered land were more likely to plant trees, and that trees were more likely to be planted on women-managed plots with more secure rights. While results are still preliminary, they are consistent with earlier work showing that secure land rights increase incentives to invest in sustainable farming practices.

Improve women’s bargaining power within the household

Why does this matter? It matters because, in many parts of the world, men and women spend money differently. Women are more likely to spend the income they control on food, health care, and education of their children, increasing investments in the next generation and contributing to overall poverty reduction.

These intergenerational impacts are important. IFPRI analyzed the impact of recent changes in Ethiopia’s family law, which gave women stronger rights to property upon divorce, and found that women who perceive that their husband would get all the assets in case of a divorce feel they have less control over their lives. Children in households where women perceive they will get less in a divorce settlement also do less well in school relative to children of the same age; girls fare even worse than boys in these households. In Bangladesh, agricultural development programs that targeted women were able to reduce the gap between women and men in asset ownership, improve women’s nutritional status and reduce stunting rates of girls.

Policymakers and development practitioners are starting to take heed: A number of governments in Africa south of the Sahara have passed laws to give women more secure rights to land. Some states in India, for example, have begun issuing land certificates with both husbands’ and wives’ names. A number of civil society organizations have increased campaigns for legal literacy, working through community-based legal aid workers, to provide people much-needed education about their rights and how to stand up for them. Grassroots women’s organizations are enlisting male elders as champions for women’s land rights. 

Progress has been made, but it is slow, and not nearly enough. So back to the question at hand: Why should the world care about women’s right to land? The answer is actually very simple: because the future depends on it.

Want to know more? Check out Land Matters, a new campaign to showcase innovative solutions in the areas of food security, economic development, conservation and more.

About the author

  • Agnes Quisumbing

    Agnes Quisumbing is an economist who leads a global research program on gender and assets at the International Food Policy Research Institute. She previously led a multi-country research program that examined how differences in bargaining power within households affect individual and household wellbeing, among other issues. She has worked on gender and land issues in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, Indonesia and her native Philippines.

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