It takes a village to protect women's land

Friday, 28 March 2014 22:33 GMT

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

Ensuring rural women get access to land isn't just about ownership. A wider approach is required to empower them.

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

Land is all about power – social and economic power that women too often don’t have. In rural areas of the developing world, women struggle to get access to farmland, find themselves forced off of land they own or don’t get a fair share of earnings from crops that they worked hard to grow.

But ensuring rural women get access to land isn’t just about ownership. In many cases, governments and NGOs have tried to empower women by getting title deeds into their hands. This isn’t enough and can even worsen gender inequality, experts said at the World Bank’s Land and Poverty Conference this week.

Even when laws guarantee land rights to women, they don’t always get them in practice.  In  Mozambique, Uganda and Liberia, for example,widows sometimes are pushed off of their plots by their husband’s families and unmarried sisters lose their parcels to their brothers. Deed or no deed, it’s acceptable for men to use women’s land as they please.

“It’s not by providing titles or working only with women that these issues can be overcome. That’s why it takes a village to protect a woman’s land,” said Marianna Bicchieri, chief technical advisor on land and gender at the Food and Agricultural Organisation.

“It’s important to create a 360-degree safety net” that involves everyone in the community until there is a critical mass that changes how a village thinks about women’s land rights, Bicchieri said. It’s also very difficult to discuss gender issues in rural communities, even with women, because they don’t realise there is a problem and may be insulted by outsiders who say that there is one, she added.  

Working with the government and local organisations in Mozambique, the Food and Agricultural Organisation develops programmes that involve the whole community and educate both sexes about gender inequality. For example, they train villagers from around the country as legal assistants and teach them about laws related to land rights and gender inequality. When these paralegals return to their homes, they educate people about women’s rights and help local leaders make fairer decisions in disputes over women’s land claims. In one success story, a village decided to abolish traditional rules that allowed land to be taken from widows.

In other cases, NGOs are encouraging women to work together and lease plots of land as a group. The idea is that they can challenge traditional practices that make it difficult for them to access land if they are united.  

In Mali, there are “very tricky Islamic customs and laws that make it almost impossible for women to get individual land,” said Steven Jonckheere, a land tenure officer at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). It’s easier for them to get group rights because it’s less confrontational, he said. So, when IFAD worked on an irrigation project in the rural Mali, it negotiated with local leaders to set aside tracts of farmland for women’s groups. 

Group leasing has also helped female farmers in the Indian state of Kerala, where legal restrictions on leasing mean that many poor, landless women are forced to make verbal agreements to rent small plots of farmland for short periods of times. In such cases, they can be easily evicted and exploited,  explained Tajamul Haque, a senior advisor at Landesa, an NGO that helps poor people secure land rights.

But women’s groups have found security in numbers. Under the guidance of the governments, groups of four to 10 women began renting larger plots of land in 2004. This way, they can produce more and stand united against an owner that tries to unfairly push them out, Haque explained. In 2010 and 2011, more than 38,000 women’s groups produced US $50 million (2.97 billion rupees) worth of agricultural produce on almost 60,000 acres of land in this way, Haque said.

In some places, changes are small. In others they are worth millions. But what was clear at the World Bank this week was that, with community involvement and by working together, women can get more economic and social power – one village at a time.

(Alia Dharssi is a global fellow in journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto)

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