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We don't know how many women own land. Why?

by Cheryl Doss, Yale University
Tuesday, 17 May 2016 16:00 GMT

Villagers carry pitchers filled with drinking water after visiting a well at Meni village in the western Indian state of Gujarat April 16, 2011. REUTERS/Amit Dave

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

We know women's legal rights to own, inherit and farm land are crucial. So why is it still so hard to know how many women have rights?

The importance of women’s rights to land and property are increasingly being recognized - both as human rights and as fundamental building blocks for economic development. 

However the promotion of women’s access to land is hampered by the fact that there are no systematically collected data on women’s land rights or access to land.

This gap in understanding was highlighted during construction of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which call for indicators of women’s secure land tenure and women’s legal rights to land.

Better data would not only be valuable to clarify the extent of gender inequality in land holdings but also to help lay to rest the widely used but unsubstantiated claim that women own only one or two percent of the world’s land. 

Better data can also support the monitoring of programs and policies designed to strengthen women’s rights to property and help to ensure that policies without a gender focus do not, in fact, end up weakening or violating women’s property rights. 

So what data is needed and how can we obtain it?


First, which rights are we interested in? 

Conceptually, we can consider land rights as consisting of a bundle of property rights. For example, land rights might include some or all of the following:

1. Access: the right to walk across land

2. Withdrawal: the right to take something that occurs naturally on the land, such as water or firewood

3. Management: the right to change the land by planting trees or clearing bush

4. Exclusion: the right to keep others from using the land and

5. Alienation: the right to transfer the land rights to others, by bequeathing or selling.

However the various elements of the bundle don’t necessarily map easily into the categories most often used when discussing women’s land and property rights. 

In practice, most analyses consider ownership, management and/or control, use and access, or secure tenure. 


When considering women’s rights over agricultural land, ownership usually implies rights recognized by the legal system or local social norms.  Ownership may also be defined by including the right of alienation; that is the owner as the one who can sell or rent out the property.  In societies where most land rights are formalized, the owner would be the one whose name is on the document, such as the deed, title, will or sales receipt. 

A woman harvests wheat at her field in Kathmandu May 14, 2012. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

However, the definition of an owner may vary across contexts and legal systems. Often our data sources simply include the response to a survey asking who owns the land and allowing the interviewee to interpret what is meant by ownership.

Ownership and management rights are often used interchangeably, although they may be distinct. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) provides guidelines for agricultural censuses and agricultural surveys using the concept of a holder.  They define a holder of an agricultural plot as the one who is making the decisions. 

Women may have their names on a land title but still not be the ones who make decisions about the production or the management.  As an example, this might happen when there is an incentive for women’s names to be listed on the title for tax purposes or perhaps in a development intervention. In these cases, women may not even know that they are listed as owners. 


In other contexts, even if a woman is not a landowner, she may still have the rights to access land or to use it to grow food for herself and her family.  In some places, she may obtain these rights through a relationship with her husband or male relative and while these rights may only be secure as long as the relationship continues, they are still crucial for the livelihoods of the women who hold them.  We rarely measure such use rights when we consider women’s property rights, in spite of their importance. 

Finally, rights to land may not be secure.  Even if someone holds a formal title, the government or powerful local elites may have the ability to displace her -- whether for public goods such as national parks or for their individual gain.  Indeed, the fact that the land is formally titled may even make expropriation easier, as it can take place in a formal legal system where the powerful have disproportionate influence.

Informal systems are of course not a guarantee of tenure security: women’s property rights may be very weak in some societies or legal systems.  Women may face threats to their land rights from members of their extended family or community who don’t recognize their claims. 

Thus, although tenure security is the attribute we may be most interested in, it is the one most difficult to define clearly and to measure systematically.  For that matter, an individual may not know whether his or her property rights are secure until they are threatened. 


A second issue is whether we want information on people or on land. Do we want to know how many women and how many men hold property rights?  Or do we want to know how land is held and by whom?   The claim cited above -- that women only own one to two percent of the world’s land – indicates how land is owned, not about how many women are landowners. 

The simplest indicator is the percent of women who hold land rights.  For this, we can use any definition of land rights – owner, manager, or holder of secure rights.  In a household survey, if we ask who owns land, we can construct this yes/no indicator for each member of the household.  We would need a similar measure for men to be able to identify if there is a gender gap in land rights.  Figure one provides this indicator for Ecuador, Ghana, and the state of Karnataka, India.

This indicator doesn’t tell us about the quality or quantity of land held by men and women; it could be the case that half of all women and half of all men have some property rights, but that each man has a much larger plot of land than any of the women. 

When women have land rights solely, it may have different implications than if they have them jointly with their husband.  Thus the indicators can also be provided as the percentage of women who have land rights themselves, such as titles in their own name, and the percentage who have joint land rights with someone else.

When we have data on each plot of land and who holds the rights, we can do land-based measures.  This can provide insights into how much land is held by men and how much by women.  However it still raises the challenge of what to do when land is held jointly by a man and a woman. 

The best solution is to present the information on land by different forms of tenure so we could see how much land is held by men, women, jointly by couples and jointly by those other than couples.  Figure two presents this data on land held by households in  Uganda and Tanzania, combing all joint ownership that is by men and women. It may also be relevant to consider how much land is held as common property, by corporations, or by the state. 


An indicator of women’s land rights at the national level may be useful for comparisons across countries or across time, but it doesn’t provide much information on how to shape policies or promote women’s empowerment.  Nevertheless, it may be useful for national statistics offices to begin to collect data on who owns land and whether they own it solely or jointly. 

To develop policies to strengthen women’s land rights, it is also important to have more detailed data on women’s property rights at the local level.  The extent to which women have specific rights over the land may vary widely within a single country.  Land may be acquired through inheritance, in the market, or from the state and these rights may be more or less formalized.  The rights may differ depending on how they were acquired and might also overlap, with various rights held by different people. 

Thus, we may also want much more nuanced data at the local level.  This cannot be collected by national-level quantitative household surveys, but instead needs smaller, more intense surveys -- preferably coupled with qualitative work to provide meaning to the numbers. 


Understanding women’s property rights and interpreting the data must also be done in the context of different marital property regimes. 

Under full community property regimes, such as South Africa, all property is jointly owned by both spouses.  In a partial community property regime, such as in Ecuador and much of Latin America, all property acquired after marriage, other than inheritances, is jointly owned. These two approaches recognize the contribution of both spouses to the acquisition of property, regardless of the extent to which they earn income or take care of the household. 

Under separation of property regimes, including those using the British system such as Ghana and India, marriage confers no rights to the spouse’s property.  Husband and wife retain their own property and any that they acquire while married.  


In 2014, UN  Secretary-General Bank Ki-moon called for a data revolution in sustainable development.  An important part of this is to continue to experiment with the way we collect information on land and property rights at the individual level.

Many lessons have been learned from the Gender Asset Gap project which began in 2010 to demonstrate the importance and feasibility of collecting ownership data at the indivdiual level. This pilot project have fed into numerous other initiatives. 

The Evidence and Data for Gender Equality project of UN Women and UN Statistics is currently collaborating with national statistics offices to pilot various methodologies for collecting individual asset ownership data. Better individual level data on property rights will not only allow us to analyze men’s and women’s property rights, but also will provide insights into intergenerational dimensions of property rights, which are changing with economic growth and urbanization.  The Gender and Land Rights data base is compiling a range of indicators on land rights. 

While we continue to refine the methodologies to obtain internationally comparable data at the national and regional level on land and property rights, it is critical to continue to learn about the nuances of these issues in local settings.  These two approaches are not mutually exclusive, but instead must go hand-in-hand for us to gain a richer understanding of women’s and men’s property rights.

Cheryl Doss is a development economist who research focuses on issues related to agriculture, assets, empowerment, and gender, with a regional focus on sub-Saharan Africa.  She is currently a Senior Lecturer at Yale University and the Gender Advisor for CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets.

For more on land and property rights visit our new website place.trust.org