Women must inherit property not poverty

by Shifa Mwesigye
Thursday, 27 March 2014 23:21 GMT

Women farmers work in a paddy field in India. July 25, 2012. Reuters/Stringer

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In Uttar Pradesh, India, women rose up and protested. They wanted sole title to the land they worked. And they are using it as a ladder out of poverty.

When Govid Kelkar started working with women in Uttar Pradesh, the largest state in India with a population of 200 million, she noticed a disturbing trend. There were no men tilling the land.

The husbands, father and sons migrated to the city in search of formal employment in factories and the big shiny offices. The women were left behind to work day and night in the fields, tilling the land to provide food for the family and to sell. In many developing countries, women contribute 80 percent of agricultural labour and yet some analysts estimate they own just 3 percent of this land.

When Kelkar, an expert at the land consultancy Landesa, talked with the Indian women, they told her that despite all their time and hard work in the rice fields, cotton fields and cattle ranches, they did not own the land and were not even allowed to inherit this property that they develop and maintain.

But things are starting to change, at least in Uttar Pradesh.

The 2005 Hindi Succession Amendment Act accorded women and girls the right to inherit land with specific provision for a woman’s sole rights to land. And not just this, it gives a woman the right to have her name on a joint land title with her husband’s. Despite the law, cultural resistance driven by patriarchal norms continued to deny the women their rights.

Then for the first time, Kelkar saw the women take a stand against their men. The women rose up and protested.

“In 70 districts of Uttar Pradesh, a movement for women’s rights to land was formed. The women were saying, ‘We want single titles in our names because when we have joint titles, we cannot question the authority of our husbands who are never here’,” KelKar says.

And here is why.

While the men stayed away, the women were not entitled to government credits and government tractors to develop the land because they did not have land titles to offer as collateral.

“The women were saying, ‘We are capable, we have greater mobility, access to markets, we are the managers of land and we want land in our names’,” Kelkar says.

Today, in Uttar Pradesh, titles are shifting. Of the 279 plots of land surveyed by Landesa, a global development non-profit that works to secure land rights for the world’s poor, 171 titles have been obtained. Of these, 114 are solely owned by married women, 30 are jointly owned by husband and wife and 27 by single women.

The wheels of success are not just riding through India, but rolling into Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Take the Masai women of Tanzania. Theirs was a donkey’s life. The Masai woman would build the house, herd the cows, milk the cows, till the land, collect water and firewood, nurse the family and when it rained at night, she would wake to mend the leaks in the hut. The husband would sleep, stretch out his hand out to receive the profits from his land and then wait for food to be served.

Yet the women and her daughters were not allowed to own or inherit property.

At the start of 2000, things started to change in the rural communities.

Ndinini Kimesera Sikar from Masai Women’s Development Organisation says women stated to speak up against marginalisation of mothers, daughters and grandmothers. They started to discuss their indigenous rights, they wanted to get an education. With the help of USAID, the rural Masai women were taken through adult literacy programs to expose them to different livelihood options.

“We organised women and taught them about their rights as stated in the Land Act of 1999. We looked at communal ownership of land as an option. Today 1,400 women now have documentation which shows they own the land collectively or individually,” Ndinini says.

The women in South Nyanza, Kenya, also were having it rough. Not only were they losing their property to men, they were also going along with the loss.  Culturally, brothers of the deceased have a traditional obligation to inherit the wife and her children along with their property. This was used as a form of land grabbing.

As if that is not enough, some brothers shamelessly inherited the property and threw out the woman from her home, leaving her on the streets to inherit poverty. For a woman with no education, no skills except those employed in the garden, she had nowhere to start.

Harold Liversage a land tenure advisor from International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), says when IFAD went into Nyanza province, their approach was to support intra-family dispute resolution. Here, the elders of the family are called upon to discourage the practice of widow inheritance. What they are doing now is to encourage preserving the land for the woman and her children. Today, land remains with the children. IFAD then works with women to start income generating activities like small farms of crops and livestock so that they can earn money to buy their own land. 

Research by the World Bank shows that women who have resources such as land are more likely to help their family climb out of poverty, and their children are more likely to attain higher education.

Countries need to translate the good laws they have on their books for women into practical reality. They need to educate women about their land rights and encourage men to respect these rights if women are to climb out of poverty.

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