Change requires a movement

Wednesday, 7 March 2012 00:37 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

I have been working on issues related to women’s secure rights to the land they farm for over 15 years, and sometimes I marvel that my passion for this work has not waned, even in the face of what sometimes seems like intractable social and cultural constraints.  My level of hopefulness rises and falls, to be honest, but my passion only increases.  Why?  I have never met a rural woman who depends on agricultural labor for a living who did not want a parcel of land of her own.  And women who have land, no matter what the size, often speak about the benefits in terms of improved and increased nutrition for their children, and being able to pay school fees—two things I care about deeply.

Still, it’s a daunting task.  Poor women are economically and physically vulnerable.  Sometimes, it’s cultural norms which create or sustain barriers to women’s land rights, such as those related to:

  • marriage (like living arrangements and dowry or bride price);
  • who is able to go to public offices and meetings;
  • what household labor men and women do and what time of day that labor is required; and
  • who is educated within a family.

All of these things can affect women’s ability to own or have control over the land they farm.

But don’t throw your hands in the air, there’s work to do!  If we want to reduce poverty and hunger for men, women, and children, we have to deal with issues of access to and control over resources, and most especially land.  Yes, it’s hard and there are few easy solutions.  Rather than give-up, women must organize, stand-up, and say ENOUGH.  Cultural and far-reaching change requires a movement.  Labor movements, civil rights movements, anti-apartheid movements have worked because enough people stood up and said “no more!”  We need to say no more—no more working as agricultural laborers on our own family’s land without any decision-making power.  No more titles to land given in the name of men only.  No more depending on men to tell their wives about government programs to distribute land.  No more uninformed government officials and judges, who don’t know how laws related to dowry, inheritance, co-ownership, and polygamy affect women’s rights to land.

In 2009, Landesa (then RDI) launched the Landesa Center for Women’s Land Rights (LCWLR) to focus on raising awareness, building capacity, and addressing the gap between law and practice; it is from this entry point that we work towards gender equitable land rights as a means to fight poverty.  We are collecting family laws, information about marriage and family customs, and articles and tools to help us do this work.  Our digital library, LandWise, will launch toward the end of this year.  We are training lawyers and working with gender specialists who care about land issues from around the world.  We are looking at Landesa’s own land programs and understanding how they may have a different impact on men than they do on women if we don’t make a special effort to reach out to women.  We are helping governments make sure their laws are truly equitable for women and men.

In developing countries, rural women farmers without secure land rights lack the resources needed to feed their families, educate their children, and break the poverty cycle.  On International Women’s Day, 2012, more than 100 years after the first one, I really don’t see how we can continue to discuss global development without addressing this fundamental issue of women’s land rights.


Grounded in the knowledge that having legal rights to land is a foundation for prosperity and opportunity, Landesa partners with governments and local organizations to ensure that the world’s poorest families have secure rights over the land they till.  Founded as the Rural Development Institute in 1967, Landesa has helped more than 100 million poor families gain legal control over their land.  With secure land rights, these families can eat better, earn more, educate their children, practice conservation, and achieve dignity for generations.

Landesa Center for Women’s Land Rights

An initiative of Landesa, the Center for Women’s Land Rights champions the untapped potential of women and girls to transform their communities.  With secure rights to land, women and girls can improve food security, education, health, and economic development for themselves and their families.