Enhancing poor rural women's land rights in the developing world.

Author:Prosterman, Roy
Position:Beyond Exclusion - Report

Nearly half the world's population remains rural, and women in rural households do a large share of the agricultural work in nearly all developing countries. However, only a small fraction of the farmland on which they depend is held by those women under any form of secure, long-term tenure. The issue of how to assure that rural women in the developing world have adequate rights to the land on which they rely for nutrition, income, status, and security is a fundamental one. Securing land rights for women is indeed fundamental to the achievement of a whole series of desired outcomes: improved income; better nutrition and education for children; giving women a voice within the family; more general empowerment within the community; and assurance of livelihood in widowhood or divorce. They are important even for such goals as protection against spousal abuse and unsafe sex. Many past reforms bearing on land tenure have ignored the issue of women's land rights or have taken legal and policy approaches that seemed aspirational, at best, or doomed to failure. But an increasingly large fund of experience with specific reforms supportive of rural women's security of land tenure shows that in a wide range of settings, many of which might appear initially discouraging, women's land property rights can be greatly enhanced. This article explores some of the legal and policy reforms that hold out increasing hope for giving rural women in the developing world secure, long-term land rights, which serve as a gateway to a large complex of social and economic rights and benefits.


The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that women,--comprise, on average, 43 percent of the agricultural labor force in developing countries." (1) The proportion of women in the agricultural sector increases to 50 percent in Eastern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. (2) But women are estimated to own only a small fraction of the land on which such food is produced. (3) Given that 40 percent of the total population of the developing world still depends on agriculture for its livelihood, and that land is the most important rural asset--since it is the chief source of nutrition, income, security, and status--the question of women's stake in such land and how their land rights may be protected and enhanced looms as a large one. (4)

When land rights have been on the legal and policy reform agenda, great benefits for the poor have been achieved. (5) However, until quite recently, most of the opportunities to use the reform to focus on women and differentially improve their rights, status, and security as land-rights holders have been lost or ignored. (6) More generally, the need to protect what few rights to land rural women in developing countries do have, and how that goal may be advanced through the legal system, has not been a prominent subject of discussion for policymakers or legal reformers. Reformers dealing with land-rights issues have considered benefits or protections for land rights of the "family" or the "household," often documented in the sole name of the adult male "head of household," if documented at all. The household itself was viewed through the metaphor of a featureless black box, without differentiation or discussion of its individual constituents or interior workings.


However, an increasingly large body of research now calls attention to the multiple benefits that can arise from assuring secure land rights for wives or other women who live within the household. Thus, it is important to implement measures that will provide such land rights where they are absent, or enhance such land rights where they are weak or partial, for poor rural women in developing countries.

Secure land rights for both women and men are critically important to creating an "investment horizon" that allows the making of medium- to long-term investments in a particular piece of land such as irrigation; land leveling; land terracing; establishing greenhouses, trellises, fishponds, and facilities for animal husbandry; carrying out intensive soil improvements; and tree planting. Such investments are, in turn, the chief means of increasing and diversifying the production from that piece of land. (7) Thus, one or more members of the household having investment decision-making power over that land must perceive themselves to have secure rights to that land to trigger investment and increased production in the first place.

Farm production, or income from that farm production, is more likely to be subject to the disposition of women to the extent that they have secure rights to the land on which it is produced, at least jointly, if not individually. (8) A given part of production, or income from production, that is subject to disposition by a woman is more likely to be used for basic needs of the family, such as nutrition, education, and health needs of the children, than that same amount of production or income when subject to disposition by a man. That is not to say that production or income subject to disposition by a man will not be used for basic needs, but only that, in a man's hands, it is more likely to be shared with expenditures for cigarettes, hard or soft drinks, gambling, entertainment, and other non-necessities. (9)

When a woman's name is on the document of land rights, jointly or individually, it tends to be broadly empowering for her both within the household and the community. This can be reflected in the making of farming decisions, on matters such as decisions on child-bearing and school attendance, in the incidence of spousal abuse or unsafe sex, and in the extent of women's community engagement, such as participation in self-help groups. (10)

Women's perception of secure rights to land that they farm can enhance their stewardship of that land. For example, they may engage in optimum fallowing practices instead of farming continuously because they fear being deprived of longer-term access if the land is even temporarily unused. (11) Documentation of a woman's land rights also reduces, although in practice it may not eliminate, the man's ability to sell or mortgage the affected land or dispose of the proceeds of such sale or mortgage. (12) To the same effect, such documentation helps forestall--though it may not eliminate--illegal attempts by male relatives to claim the land rights where a husband predeceases his wife. (13) Women's secure land rights can be critical not only in case the husband dies, but in other cases--such as divorce, abandonment, or male migration--where women wish to form a viable female-headed household over the objection of male relatives. (14) Documentation may also enhance the wife's ability to pass land rights by inheritance in a manner that gives greater recognition to daughters, even if that recognition may not be preferential or equal, nor in accordance with the formal legal system. (15)

The last point is one that must always be borne in mind: questions of women's rights to land tend to be governed by customary practices of "family law," rather than by formal laws on the books. (16) Various combinations of approaches may augur considerable progress in many settings, but full implementation of favorable formal law--or making formal law more favorable and implementing it--is often likely to be a long-term and step-by-step process. It is essential to recognize the importance of small steps toward progress as appropriate interventions are identified and supported.

Beginning in the 1990s, against the background of the accumulating body of evidence as to the vital importance of women's land rights, serious attention began to be paid to these rights in policymaking, lawmaking, and aid-donor circles. (17) The black-box approach to the benefits of tenure reform has not disappeared, but it has receded. The issue of what measures might be taken under the legal systems of various countries to enhance, in particular, the land rights of poor rural women, usually among the poorest of the poor, is now widely in play. And while this is true to varying degrees, it can be said that in the research and policy-advisory experience of my own organization, Landesa, including its Center for Women's Land Rights (LCWLR), it is almost certainly seriously in play for countries having a substantial majority of the world's poor rural women within their borders, such as Kenya, India, and China.


The following is a non-exhaustive summary with brief commentary of some of the measures within the legal system that may contribute to providing or enhancing effective land rights and tenure security for poor rural women in the developing world. Landesa has encountered all of these best practices and recommendations in its research and advisory work in the field in the past two decades in Angola, Bulgaria, China, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Rwanda, Tajikistan, Uganda, and Uzbekistan. Accompanying these brief summaries are boxed descriptions of experiences with some of these measures as seen in recent years by Landesa and the LCWLR in specific country contexts. Related citations are provided where they may be useful in understanding the recommendations. These include the following:

  1. Constitutional or equivalent provision for equal rights for women that encompass land rights. (18) Depending on the circumstances in which they were adopted, these may create space for important further and specific progress, as was the case in Kenya in 2010, where they were part of the process of adopting a widely heralded and broadly supported reformed constitution. (19)

  2. Constitutional or equivalent provision for women's representation on dispute-hearing or dispute-resolving, fact-finding, and policymaking bodies. This is an approach to women's land and other rights via process, and in many settings, may be vital to improved implementation of pro-equality substantive rules on...

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