The High Stakes of Land
That potential is growing. On October 15, 2009, the International Day for Rural Women, RDI announced the launch of the Global Center for Women’s Land Rights. It is the first attempt to bring together women working on property rights, aggregating their resources and research while providing space to share strategies and solutions. Major donors, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Omidyar Network, and the Nike Foundation, have committed their support.
“Girls are the farmers of the future. Give her land rights, and other critical things fall in place,” says Maria Eitel, president of the Nike Foundation, which made the first funding grant.
According to Giovarelli, who directs the new center, this support marks a major turning point for the movement. Foundations have been reluctant to fund land rights research in the past, as the work on the ground is laborious. Legal advocates and researchers travel from house to house in rural areas, where customs and knowledge about property rights vary dramatically.
“It’s difficult to know what women’s needs are without asking them directly, and that requires lots of time and money,” she said.
Nike is now backing a three-month feasibility study for a project in West Bengal that would direct land rights specifically toward girls. If approved, RDI will work with the Indian government to encourage families without sons to provide land to their daughters as dowries, rather than more traditional resources to the husband’s family. This would empower women with an economic asset from the beginning of their marriage.
The new program would build on an existing partnership with several Indian states to secure land rights for the rural poor by helping them purchase small areas of land, called “micro-plots.” Since 2004 in Andhra Pradesh alone, 5,303 women have successfully managed 4,539 acres to start small farms, build homes, increase their incomes, and improve the health and well-being of their families.
Despite these promising innovations, the land rights movement faces a challenging knowledge deficit. Current, accurate information about land legislation and local customary law is difficult to track down, and clear career paths don’t exist for those who want to get involved. To address these problems, the Global Center for Women’s Land Rights will offer training and fellowships to qualified professionals.
Finally, aiming to bridge the distance between advocates working alone in academia and small villages, the center will host an online library. By gathering global property laws and practices and translating them into multiple languages, the community will then have access to their collective work and experience.
Leonida Odongo expects the e-library to become a valuable tool for her organization, Ebony Youth and Orphans Support Initiative, which holds workshops on inheritance rights for widows in rural Kenya.
“It would be a good opportunity to have reference materials from around the world, to get to know what is working where, and pick the best practices and replicate them!”
RDI plans to launch the e-library in the next year, but it is an enormous undertaking.
“We’re talking about gathering laws on women’s property rights from every country in the world,” Giovarelli said. “What we’re hoping is that someone from the Uganda Land Alliance, for example, could go to the e-library and ask, ‘How have you effectively dealt with the issue of polygamy and women’s land rights?’ Then other people who may have done something successful in their community could write in and say, okay, we tried this and it worked, and here’s what didn’t work.”
In Uganda, women account for approximately three out of four agricultural workers, but they control a mere fraction of the land, according to a 2008 report by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW). Even though the Ugandan constitution gives all citizens the right to own property, women rarely claim land of their own, instead farming the fields of their fathers, husbands, or brothers.
Krista Jacobs, an ICRW economist specializing in land rights, attributes this inequity largely to Uganda’s dual legal system, which upholds both government and customary laws about land. Since formal courts are expensive and far away, and customary laws are rarely written down, a woman’s right to land is often ambiguous, arbitrary, or simply unknown.
“Lack of knowledge about rights and the law is pervasive at every level, all the way from women and men in the village to local government officials, traditional leaders, and even judges and lawyers in the formal legal system,” said Jacobs, who is working with the Uganda Land Alliance (ULA) to change that. “While on the one hand, you have this incredible vacuum of knowledge, you also have a great opportunity.” . . .