Property Rights and Women’s Economic Empowerment

women access to land rights and property
Written by Shwetha Srinivasan

Property rights is a critical tool in accessing economic opportunities. It is seen as the key to economic development. Property rights mean claims to property that are socially and legally recognized and that are enforceable by a legitimate external authority. Secure property rights lay the foundation for economic growth and economic freedom. However, property rights are skewed towards men. Women have been left behind in terms to being able to secure land and property rights. This gender gap in ownership and control of property is a main reason for gender gap in social status, economic well-being and empowerment. To secure property rights for all, there is a need for further legal reform that will give women land rights.

Access to land rights can help women have more autonomy and decision making power. There is a direct correlation between women’s property rights and their economic empowerment. In developing countries, where agriculture is the main source of livelihood, land is a basis for agricultural production and income generation. Secure land rights is important to ensure food security and reduce poverty.

Women face many barriers in securing rights to land. Legal factors act as a significant barrier as laws in many countries do not promote women’s ownership of land and inheritance rights. Patriarchal family structures, customary laws, and lack of awareness about women’s rights in communities are some of the structural, socioeconomic, and cultural factors as well that prevent women from getting equal access to land.

On average, women comprise 43 percent of the agricultural labor force in developing countries and 50 percent of the labor force in some parts of Asia and Africa. In South Asia, 60 percent of rural women are farmers. Women are involved in tending animals, producing crops, and collecting fuel and water. They undertake these activities in addition to caring for the family. But in developing countries women comprise less than 20 percent of all agricultural holders on average. This shows that women’s participation in the agricultural sector hasn’t translated into equal access to land – women continue to remain economically and socially vulnerable due to a disparity in land ownership.

When women have land rights, they contribute a bigger proportion of their income to the household and are able to exercise control over agricultural income. Women with land rights have better access to credit as they have the option of using land as collateral or as savings for the future. Women also gain more decision making power in the household. This is supported by research conducted in Nepal, where women with property are likely to have a final say in household decisions. Furthermore, securing land rights for women can mean achieving food security, having children that are less likely to be underweight and more likely to have higher levels of education. Women’s ability to achieve economic empowerment through secure property rights benefits children and families.

Economic decision making power reveals the gender gap and the status of women in society. When more women have this decision making power, it is effective in raising their status in the society and more importantly, within their communities. According to a study in India, women who own both land and house experience considerably less physical and psychological violence. There is a decrease in domestic violence as well as dowry related harassment. Women have a greater ability to escape domestic violence if they have property rights. The same study showed that the proportion of women leaving home due to domestic violence was greater among women owning property. Thus, property rights also act as a form of protection and economic security, making them less dependent on men in the family.

An often overlooked impact on securing women’s property rights is its impact on tackling climate change. Women farmers are more likely to increase crop yields, plant more trees, conserve soil and recover from natural disasters. A World Bank study on Uganda found that women with secure land rights were more likely to use soil conservation techniques. Additionally, natural disasters affect women more adversely than men because they don’t have secure land rights. For example, after the 2004 tsunami the Sri Lankan government offered funding only to male-headed households in certain areas. As a result, widows and single women weren’t eligible to avail these resources to recover from the tsunami.

Promoting secure property rights for women requires legal reform, enforcement of women’s land rights legislation and community engagement. While addressing legal barriers is important, it is more difficult to address cultural and structural barriers present in society. Landesa, a non profit works with governments, communities and local organizations around the world to secure land rights and address issues of poverty, hunger and conflict over land. It’s Center for Women’s Land Rights is involved in advocacy and policy recommendations to strengthen and promote women’s land rights. It has other programs such as Land Rights 2030, which works to secure land rights for all through the Sustainable Development Agenda. One of the Center’s current initiatives is the Promoting Peace Project in Rwanda. In partnership with multiple organizations, the project promotes peace through resolution of land disputes. They are developing a network of people to manage land disputes in their communities and improve the legal, policy and institutional framework for land dispute management.

Women’s land rights have a far reaching impact on reducing poverty and promoting women’s economic empowerment. It is essential not only to recognize this impact but also to implement reforms and programs, keeping in mind the cultural context, to reduce the gender gap in property rights.  

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