Unleash women’s power by strengthening land rights

By Godfrey Massay and Beth Roberts 

Rural women make up a quarter of the world’s population. Although most depend on land for survival, most lack secure land rights. Women are also most affected by dire poverty in emerging economies across Africa, Asia and Latin America. Secure land rights can help lift rural women out of poverty, together with their families and communities. 

Photo: Will Baxter/Tearfund
Photo: Will Baxter/Tearfund

In more than half of all countries, laws or customs hinder women’s access to or ownership of land. Women’s voices are under-represented in decisions on land at the highest levels of government and in their own communities and households. Women frequently access land only through male relatives, are disadvantaged in inheritance and are vulnerable to dispossession after divorce or widowhood. Women experience greater negative effects than men from land-based investments: they are the first to lose their land and the last to be compensated. 

Because women have less independence and fewer resources, they are impacted more than men by climate change. They are less likely to have the social or financial means to migrate for employment, and less likely to have access to credit, technology and services. These factors are made worse by other aspects of gender inequality: limits on women’s mobility, educational opportunities and access to information, markets, and government services, as well as women bearing the largest share of unpaid domestic and care work

The benefits of women’s land rights 

Rural women, though far from being all the same, collectively share this amazing distinction: their interaction with the earth plays a key role in the survival of the human race. They are well placed to sustainably manage resources and adapt to the effects of climate change. They feed the world. Their empowerment leads to better nutrition and education for the large numbers of young people in developing economies. As women’s rights are strengthened and their voices heard, common hopes of humanity can be realised – an end to conflict, sustainable development, human thriving. This is becoming increasingly and more firmly recognised. The Committee for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) recently declared the ‘rights of rural women to land and natural resources… to be fundamental human rights’. 

Development workers can help women gain rights to land and natural resources using these approaches: 

  • Use human rights and sustainable development standards to advocate for better laws, policy and practice. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) explicitly include women’s land rights in three indicators. Human rights bodies acknowledge the centrality of women’s land rights to sustainable development. Governments are committed to implement both, and practitioners can advocate for coordinated efforts. 
  • Stress the urgent need for laws and policies that favour women’s land rights as agriculture shifts towards women. Evidence is growing that men’s migration for greater economic opportunity increasingly leaves women behind to farm. Evidence also shows that land rights for smallholder farmers can jump-start and help sustain economic development. Laws that specifically recognise and benefit female farmers are urgently needed to realise women’s human rights, and to ensure food security as urbanisation continues. 
  • Coordinate strategically. Global, regional, national and local movements for women’s land rights have an exciting momentum. Together, development workers can sustain and build these efforts. 
  • Collaborate with communities. Development workers and paralegals can support communities to identify and put into practice solutions like legal aid to strengthen women’s land rights. 
  • Work directly with private sector actors. Companies have begun to see a link between secure tenure and increased productivity in agricultural supply chains. Development workers can advocate for women’s inclusion as good business and good practice. 
  • Encourage governments to collect data. The Sustainable Development Goals present a crucial opportunity: we lack data globally on women’s land use and ownership. Without it, we cannot create effective solutions for stronger women’s land rights. 

Efforts like these will ensure secure, equal rights to land for women and their families and communities, helping whole societies to move faster towards prosperity. 

Godfrey Massay is the Advocacy Manager, Tanzania, and Beth Roberts is an attorney and Land Tenure and Gender Specialist for Landesa, an international land rights organisation. 

A shorter version of this article appeared in Footsteps magazine edition 105 on land rights.