OPINION: Domestic violence survivors battle tenure insecurity in Brazil

by Antonio Inguane | Cadasta Foundation
Monday, 9 March 2020 16:15 GMT

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

Millions of women across the world, particularly those who are poor and have few economic opportunities, struggle to secure their right to land

Antonio Inguane is programs specialist, Cadasta Foundation. 

In many countries, economic prosperity leads to the improvement of land policies, which provide income generation and ensure prosperity for low-income households. In some places, however, land tenure security does not just affect household economic prosperity, it also defines and solidifies household power relationships, and often determines the degree of freedom and equality women experience. 

Globally, evidence suggests that a gender equitable approach to land tenure security has a positive influence on household stability. These benefits are most evident when the intervention targets women as the head of household or as a spouse in a joint titling. What happens, then, when women are not represented in land regularization policies and programs?

On a recent trip to Pernambuco in Brazil, I visited the municipality of Bonito. Known for its rich natural resources, Bonito is considered one of the best tourist destinations in the northeast region of Brazil. Behind the stunning natural landscapes, though, lie stories of brave women trying to protect their rights as well as the most valuable resource in the community: land.

Espaço Feminista, a Brazilian non-profit, strives to integrate and develop policy models that empower women’s groups, seeking autonomy and enforcing their rights to housing and land tenure regularization in the state of Pernambuco. In Bonito, Espaco Feminista is supporting the municipal authority in the implementation of the Minha Casa Legal Program, which is part of a nationwide policy to document and regularize land and property for low-income people in urban and rural areas. In Bonito, like in much of the developing world, 70% of residents do not have their land or property registration documents.

Through this program, the municipal government aims to document and register close to 11,000 households across the municipality. To ensure community engagement and participation, Espaco Feminista is working with my organization Cadasta Foundation, and other local women’s groups, to ensure women are involved and represented in the program as well documented as heads of households.

While in Bonito, I was invited to attend a session where the women shared their stories and experiences of civic and community engagement. During the session, I felt moved by the women’s relentless belief that better days are still to come. I heard an emotional story about a victim of domestic violence fighting against all odds to overcome lifelong challenges.

After nine years of abuse the mother of five fled to start a new life somewhere else. She found a job in the sugar cane plantation in Palmares, a few kilometers from Bonito. After six years she returned to her community with a little money saved from the labor-intensive sugarcane job, and bought a piece of land. But instead of celebrating she found herself trapped with no documents that prove the ownership of the land.

What do stories like this tell us about domestic violence and tenure insecurity? According to the WHO, 1 in 3 (35%) women worldwide experience physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner or sexual violence from a non-partner.

In 2015, a study titled “Mapa de Violência. Homicídio de Mulheres no Brasil” found that more than 50% of domestic violence against young and adult women is committed by a current or ex-partner. Earlier in 2018, more than 1.2 million cases of domestic violence were pending before the court across Brazil.

While recognizing the governmental efforts to promote policies that protect women’s rights, the stories of women in Bonito provide a frightening portrayal of domestic violence and tenure insecurity. Their stories reflect the daily challenges of millions of women across the world, particularly those who are poor and have few economic opportunities.

The solutions to such complex societal problems often will exacerbate a single party intervention, it requires a multidimensional approach that involves socio-cultural changes. Yet, a study conducted in Nicaragua provides empirical evidence that land ownership by women decreases their experiences of domestic violence within months. Additionally, the study shows that female landowners have higher levels of relationship power and experience less partner control, and thus, experience significant reductions in domestic violence.

These findings point toward hope for a brighter future for vulnerable women across the globe. Until then, we should pay close attention to initiatives such as the Espaco Feminista, who are driven by the principle that women should have agency in political and legal matters, in addition to promoting public dialogue on such issues and influencing public policies that would improve the lives of other vulnerable groups.