The High Stakes of Land
Women are the farmers of the world. Now their right to own land is being recognized as the key for ending global hunger.
Five years ago, Sushmita Pallam worked in the fields alongside her husband in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The work was seasonal, the fields were not theirs, and the rice gruel they could afford gave her stomach infections.
“Even on days when I was sick, I used to go to work to feed my family,” she remembers, but it was never enough. She came home to her hungry children and husband’s abuse, and fell asleep dreaming of festivals with good rice.
But today, at age 30, Sushmita sends her children to school. She serves milk, meat, and the best rice at her table. And she stands beside a husband who no longer beats her.
“After 10 long years of humiliation and disrespect, I have attained a new status in my family and in the village,” she says. “It is the reason for my pride and confidence.”
The difference? A small piece of land—not quite an acre—staked out in Sushmita’s name.
Today, while women make up over half the world’s population and produce over half its food, they own less than 2% of its land. While development experts recommend agriculture as one of the fastest advancements out of poverty for Africa, women in many countries like Cameroon, Burkina Faso, and Zimbabwe rarely control the profits from their crops, though they make up 80% of the farmers. Discriminatory inheritance practices prevent daughters from receiving their share of family land across Central and South Asia, and allow the newly widowed in southern Africa to be removed from their property, bereft of both husband and home. Without the economic security and decision-making power of property tenure, women are marginalized, leaving them vulnerable to violence, malnutrition, and discrimination.
But around the world, women’s land rights advocates are taking action at both the policy and grassroots level. Backed by international human rights principles, they assert women’s equal right to land, property, housing, and inheritance. Recent legislation in Uganda gives women secure tenure over family lands, and the Moroccan civil code now authorizes joint property ownership within marriage. In Namibia, the Communal Land Reform Act of 2002 guaranteed that district land management includes women. In Brazil, the city of São Paulo recognized women’s right to shelter, giving them priority for public housing in 2004.
Still, despite these signs of progress, the continuing challenge lies in education, as new policies are easier to enact than enforce. Women are often unaware of their rights, local customs contradict the letter of the law, and attitudes are slow to change. Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have adopted gender amendments to their property laws, for example, but traditional practices still limit women’s land ownership.
But the stakes for change are high. Research repeatedly demonstrates that when women gain control over land, they also gain control over their circumstances. Property rights can enable female farmers to produce better crops, widows to avoid eviction, girls to escape domestic violence and HIV-stigma, and women worldwide to devote more resources to the well-being of their family and ultimately their society.
“If we’re going to address poverty and hunger, we have to talk about women’s land rights,” said Renee Giovarelli, a women’s property rights lawyer with the Rural Development Institute (RDI) in Seattle. “Women who have access to land spend the income from that on their children, on nutrition, and on education. We have to think in terms of making sure women have secure rights to the land.”
Today, groups like RDI are launching new initiatives to not only increase awareness about the importance of land, but also place that land directly in women’s hands. Leading organizations from the Clinton Global Initiative to major foundations are heralding secure property rights for women as the next major key to development and growth.
“This whole movement is in the same place that microfinance was in about 20 years ago,” said Radha Friedman, RDI communications director. The idea of microfinance emerged in Bangladesh under the vision of Muhammad Yunus as a way to provide very small loans to women and spur entrepreneurship.
“It’s because people took a look at what an incredible and transformative difference it could make in the lives of women and their families that it rose to the household concept it is today,” Freidman explained. “We see that same kind of potential for women’s land rights.” . . .