A Letter to the Delegates of the G(irls)20 Summit

Friday, 1 June 2012 22:22 GMT

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

The G(irls)20 Summit was held from May 24-31 in Mexico City, Mexico just before the leaders of the world’s most powerful nations meet at G20. The Summit is focusing on economic innovation and the role girls and women can play in building strong and innovative economies. It brings together one delegate from each G20 country, plus a representative from the European Union and the African Union. The delegates, who are all girls age 18-20, debate, discuss and design innovative ideas necessary to empower girls and women globally and present these to G20 Leaders.

The Director of Landesa’s Center for Women’s Land Rights, Elisa Scalise, was asked to speak at a panel entitled “Constraints Women Famers Face to Agricultural Productivity (With Proven Solutions).”

Below is an edited transcript of her message to the delegates. We hope it inspires you too.

Dear delegates,

Thank you for your incredible work so far. You are all inspiring and I hope that your time here will move you to be the great leaders of change for tomorrow.

Today, I will tell you a story: a story that shows a fundamental challenge that many rural poor women face. Even though women are active agricultural producers—in some places providing the bulk of agricultural labor—they are overwhelmingly excluded from having rights to a crucial input into agricultural production: land.

You know the vast majority of the world’s most poor people have three things in common: they are rural, they are farmers, and they don’t have secure land rights.

These issues are only exacerbated for women: women like Christine.

Christine is from Amuru in Northern Uganda. She is 36 years old and can’t read or write because she only attended school through grade three. She married when she was a teenager, moved to her husband’s home, and was given a small parcel of land to use to feed their two children. This is how things are done in Northern Uganda. Women marry, move to their husbands’ homes, and through them get land.

Sadly, Christine’s husband died. For a brief time she continued to live with his family on their land before they told her she had to leave.

So Christine returned to her own family with her children. While she had been away, her father had died and her elder brother had taken over as heir to the family land. Her brother gave her a small plot of land to use to grow food for her children and space to build a hut near the family compound.

She lived there for a little while, but then her brother began pressuring her to leave because he wanted to use the land for other purposes. Furthermore, Christine’s brother worried her children, who belonged to the clan of her late husband, would try to take his land. Eventually things got so bad that Christine’s own mother, in an effort to appease her son, burned down Christine’s hut to force her away.

With few options, Christine decided to move in with another man and soon had another two children. She cultivated his small plot of land to feed their family until one day this second husband died suddenly and she was forced off his land. Christine was left with 4 children, no husband, no family, and no land.

Christine’s story points to the barriers that women face when it comes to land rights. These barriers have a serious impact on their agricultural activity and ability to provide for their families.

  • Women can lose the right to use the land at the discretion of their husband, father, brother, or uncle. In many ways they are like share-croppers on their families’ lands—providing labor but not knowing if they will reap the benefits.
  • While the laws in Uganda generally provide for equal rights to property for men and women, the law also recognizes the validity of customary rules for land rights. As we saw in Christine’s story, the custom in Northern Uganda is that men have rights to land and women only have rights to land through their relationship with a man.

Christine’s story is also an example of how these barriers to secure land rights can impact a woman’s ability to engage productively in agriculture. Because she is a woman:

  • Christine does not have any land of her own to use.
  • Christine’s right to use land is completely contingent on her relationship with a man, and if that relationship ends, so does her right to use the land.
  • Christine’s choices about what to do with the land are limited – she will not invest in improvements because she does not know whether her rights will last more than one season; she grows what her husband tells her to grow; and if he wants to sell the proceeds at market rather than feed her family, then she must comply.
  • Christine may be excluded from agricultural extension programs that are provided for land owners.

And yet evidence shows that if women have more secure rights to land, agricultural productivity will increase.

And there are other important benefits to stronger land rights for women that relate to food security and household well-being:

Evidence from Nicaragua, Honduras, and Ghana shows that families spend a greater portion of household income on food when women in the household own land.

In Nepal, research showed that the likelihood that a child is severely underweight is reduced by half if the child’s mother owns land.

Delegates, I hope that that this panel leads you to the answer to this question: what can be done to maximize women’s contribution to agriculture, and improve the well-being of poor households around the world?

Landesa works with governments, the aid sector, and local NGOS to help improve laws on WLR and improve implementation of laws. We help to close the gap between customary law and statutory law, focusing on what will be socially and legally legitimate and with a view for what will work for women and men in practice.

For situations like Christine’s, we are working with local partners to help raise awareness of women’s rights to land under the law, to help women like Christine engage with local leaders when she needs protection or assistance, to join a group of women who can provide social and financial support, and to negotiate for stronger and longer-lasting rights to land that she uses to provide for her family.

We use results from our work with Christine and others like her to inform broader policy and legal reform at the national and international level.

Ultimately, we know that improved land rights for women is just one piece in a much bigger puzzle: a piece that helps women become better farmers, better providers for their families, better citizens, and in the end, better equipped to end the cycle of poverty.