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Access to land and property: the forgotten human right

by Monique Villa & Peter Rabley | @Monique_Villa | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 22 May 2017 11:16 GMT

Unused cooling towers are seen overlooking an informal settlement in Soweto, South Africa August 5, 2015. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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

Property rights is not an academic research topic or a niche issue. It’s a global concern that needs to be understood by all of us

What would happen if you suddenly lost your home? Beyond bricks and mortar, this is a safe place for you and your family. It’s your sanctuary, a space which is yours. If you were forced from it tomorrow, with no alternative, how would you survive?

Now imagine that threat of sudden eviction is a constant, daily fear. It may sound unlikely. But this is the appalling reality for an estimated one billion people worldwide who lack secure rights over the land or property in which they live. Without legally recognized documentation, these one billion people face the risk of wrongful eviction and forced displacement.

Lack of property rights has a ripple effect: if ownership is unclear, investment in infrastructure and basic services will be put on hold, desperate people rely on an underworld of illegal networks to supply services, and the result is a crippling effect on the social and financial stability of the community.

More people than you would believe are affected. In fact, three quarters of the world’s population cannot prove they own or have the rights to use the land on which they live or work. 90 percent of all Africa’s land is still completely undocumented. Women in particular are affected by this vacuum of rights. In the Middle East and North Africa region, an estimated 25 million urban women lack equal constitutional and statutory property rights.

In more than half of all countries, patriarchal tradition and ancient social beliefs threaten women’s land rights even when they are in the law. In 34 countries, daughters do not have equal inheritance rights to sons. And in 35 countries, widows are particularly vulnerable as they do not automatically inherit their deceased husband’s property – which may go to his family or to their sons. While legislation may be slowly changing in some parts of the world in women’s favour, cultural customs and belief systems often have a far greater hold.

For women, land and property ownership marks the end to economic uncertainty and vulnerability, which in turn impacts the entire community. Women invest 90 percent of their income in their immediate families, and when they own their own property, they have more power over household decisions and food security, and the hope of safeguarding the future for their children and for future generations.

Security and ownership of land is critical to social and economic empowerment. So why aren’t we talking more about this issue globally?

One huge problem is the ignorance around the world about property rights as an issue. Food security, healthcare and education make the headlines every day because these are topics with which most of us can empathize and more easily engage. But land and property rights, while fundamental to our lives, are ignored. We may worry about paying the mortgage or rent, but we don’t think twice about using our address to register for employment, credit cards and loans, basic utilities and much more.

This lack of awareness is made worse by the way in which property rights issues are often couched in technical and legal jargon. We cannot hope to engage the mainstream public and policy makers without highlighting the issues – the root of the problem, as well as the devastating outcomes – in a compelling and accessible way.

This is why the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the Omidyar Network joined forces a year ago to launch Place, the first digital media outlet dedicated to under-reported property rights news. Place uses the skill, expertise and authority of independent journalists to bring these issues to life, so they become headlines that raise social consciousness, create impact and drive action.

Importantly, Place looks at the complexities and human impact of land conflicts, gentrification, deforestation, extractive industries, and other sources of property rights insecurity. Our journalists also highlight the success stories, because understanding what is working for one community can lead to solutions elsewhere.

After one year later, Place has produced more than 500 original stories, 86 videos and has been visited by tens of thousands of people. Its articles are distributed via the Reuters wire, reaching around 1 billion people. Stories covered have ranged from slums to Tanzanian ‘witches’ to ‘Pokemon Go’, have been published by the New York Times, Quartz, Wall Street Journal, and The Guardian, and have even resulted in land policy changes by governments from Kenya to Romania.

Property rights is not an academic research topic or a niche issue. It’s a global concern that needs to be understood by all of us. Until we are able to shine a spotlight on property rights, and scale solutions across cities, countries and continents, the number of people at risk will continue to grow.

Monique Villa is CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Peter Rabley is Venture Partner at Omidyar Network, which funds Place, the first digital media outlet dedicated to under-reported property rights news.

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