Women harvesting tea leaves at a plantation in Mehma Sarja Village in Punjab, India, a country where women's right to own land is increasingly recognized. Photo by: F. Fiondella (IRI/CCAFS) / CC BY-NC-SA

The solution seemed simple enough. By adding a second blank line to official land title documents in Madagascar, a wife’s name could be registered as co-owner of the plot she tilled with her husband. As co-owner, she could secure her claim to the family farm in case of widowhood or divorce.

For a while, the strategy appeared to work, at least in some parts of the country. Women’s names began appearing on land deeds in some districts. But when doctoral candidate Marit Widman checked later, she found that the second line had been dropped with no explanation for the change. Land registration officials told them the issue was not a priority.

Changing attitudes, it turned out, proved more difficult than altering the lines on a page.

“It’s a really great example and also depressing,” said Renee Giovarelli, a lawyer with Landesa who came across the case while working on women’s rights to land in the east African nation. “This is the thing about women’s land’s rights: Social norms are so difficult to change.”

Women account for nearly half of the world’s smallholder farmers in developing countries, according to some estimates, and they increasingly make up the majority of farmers in places where men have moved to cities in search of work. But they also often don’t have recognized rights to the land they till. Most access land through their husbands or sons, plant in areas where property is communal, or work as day laborers on large collectives.

When women own the land they till, families tend to be better fed, better educated and healthier, research suggests. Daughters tend to marry at an older age and wives tend to suffer less incidents of domestic violence. Babies are born with higher birth weights. Food security and economic development increase.

“Assets under women’s control give women greater bargaining power and often contribute more to important welfare outcomes for the household, in children’s education, for instance,” said Ruth Meinzen-Dick, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, which has researched the impact of land ownership on women’s rights in Africa and elsewhere.

Roy Prosterman, founder of the Landesa Rural Development Institute, put it more bluntly: “Any amount that gets into his hands is net of expenditures on cigarettes, gambling, tea, soft drinks, hard drinks, non-essential [items]. What’s left gets applied to family, medical care and education.”

The global movement to recognize womens land tenure is growing. While land is a critical asset for all of the rural poor — often it is their only asset and a main source of food security — recognizing women’s claims in particular may better feed families. One study, for instance, found that low-income female-headed households had better nutrition than higher-income households headed by men. One reason, said Amanda Richardson, a fellow at Landesa, is that men tend to grow commercial crops, while women tend to focus on family gardens.

Several countries have been taking steps to formally recognize women’s land rights. Bright spots include India, where a government program has registered tens of thousands of micro-plots either jointly to a husband and wife, or to a woman only, and Kenya, where constitutional reforms recognize women’s claims to land.

But even in those instances, women’s gains were not always clear. In India, for instance, many women did not know their names had been added to land deeds, while in Kenya, rural women often thought the constitution applied only to people living in Nairobi, researchers said.

“There isn’t a magic wand or magic legislation,” Meinzen-Dick said. “Just writing a new law on land rights doesn’t necessarily change things in practice.”

Work with governments to change property laws

International development organizations are working in many ways to ensure that laws are reformed and attitudes begin to change so that women’s land rights can be recognized, both formally and informally. A first step is often to help governments create policies and programs that promote land tenure security for women.

In India, development organizations worked with authorities to add a second line to land deeds, similar to the initiative in Madagascar. When they discovered women did not know they were landowners, these groups organized training for women and men to learn about land rights.

In Latin America, several development agencies have been working with governments to secure land titles, including adding a second line to land deeds to jointly title land belonging to a husband and wife — an effort that Carmen Diana Deere characterized as a “major struggle.”

“That was a major change,” she said. “It should be recognized that, hey, women are farmers too. You can’t assume that by benefiting the man, you’ll benefit everybody in the household.”

In 2003, the Ethiopian government began to give joint title to land belonging to married couples as part of a community-based land registration program. Those reforms, coupled with marriage law reforms that grant women assets after they divorce, have led to greater recognition of women’s land rights.

Work with communities to change attitudes

Getting societies to accept a government’s policy change can be difficult.

“The next step, which is perhaps even more challenging, is what to do about it once you get recognition,” Meinzen-Dick said.

Traditional views can be difficult to alter; indigenous groups, for instance, often apply their own customs to land ownership, which is typically communal.

Moreover, marriage and inheritance laws or tribal customs often favor the husband’s or sons’ rights to assets, including land. Societal attitudes often hold that women should not have a stake in land or customs allow men to sell land without the wife’s consent. These customary laws can work fine — unless a family breaks apart.

“Women have to make sure that their names are written down on everything so that when push comes to shove, that right is actually recognized,” said Carmen Diana Deere, distinguished professor of Latin American studies at the University of Florida’s Department of Food and Resource Economics.

In Kenya, Landesa field workers out to change attitudes toward women’s land ownership first targeted community elders, educating them on how the country’s new constitution affects land and property rights. Then they trained teachers so that students could bring what they learned home to their parents. They trained men. And only then did they begin to train women.

“By the time we got to the women, the rest of the community had already been primed,” said Landesa’s Richardson. “It wasn’t seen as us coming in and disrupting society.”

Sometimes, cultural taboos make it difficult for women to attend public meetings or to meet with international development agencies without the men of the community also in attendance.

In Laos, for instance, development agencies working to increase awareness of women’s land ownership rights initially held meetings with men and women together so that men could learn what the women were hearing. Then they met with women alone so that they felt more comfortable asking questions.

Determine how much land is tilled by women

Estimating how much land women lay claim to is tricky. In countries where property is communal, neither men nor women “own” the land they till. Moreover, there is dearth of data on land ownership in developing countries, and what data there is often mixes data points.

Several initiatives have begun collecting land ownership data based on gender, including the Gender Asset Gap Project, which is working to determine ownership in Ghana, India and Ecuador, and the Evidence and Data for Gender Equity or EDGE project, an initiative supported by U.N. Women, the World Bank and others.

“Collecting this kind of data is relatively simple,” said Cheryl Doss, a senior lecturer at Yale University who helps to analyze women’s access to land and other assets in Liberia and Uganda through the Assets and Market Access Collaborative Research Support Program, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. “As organizations begin to realize how important and useful having this kind of data is, my hope is that it will become routine to collect [it].”

Provide training

In 2009, Landesa launched an innovative program in India called the Security for Girls Through Land Project, which sought to improve girls’ social and economic prospects by training them about land and property rights. The project has reached more than 7,000 girls in nearly 300 villages, and is expanding to reach 35,000 more this year. In addition to learning about land rights, girls learn to cultivate small “kitchen gardens” that they can use to feed their families or sell for income.

The project is one of too few that provide agricultural training to women in developing countries, according to the City & Guilds Centre for Skills Development, a U.K.-based organization that promotes international education and training. The group found in 2009 that most training programs were targeted primarily at men.

“It’s the exception rather than the rule,” said Roy Prosterman, founder of Landesa. “Most training programs, tech training and other support for farm households tend to focus on the male to the extent that they exist at all. It’s very important to have models for such programs that focus on women. Not only adult women, but also girls in their teens.”

Such programs may encourage women to focus on more than just crafts or the canning and processing of food, but instead on agriculture or starting their own business.

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

  • Deborah Horan

    Deborah Horan is an award-winning journalist who has written about international development issues for the World Bank's Human Development Network and for the International Finance Corp.'s Sustainable Business Advisory about health, HIV/AIDS, early childhood development, education and the promotion of small business through business management training. Deb has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraq war, among other international assignments.

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