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Land rights

Give women property rights and empower entire communities

Monique Villa  CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation

Monique Villa  CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation

Most of us would consider our home as the ultimate sanctuary: it’s the place that we make our own, that we guard from others, a safe space for our families.

We may worry over the cost of renting or buying our home. We may struggle to maintain it. But we don’t lie awake at night in constant fear of being evicted because someone else is claiming ownership of it.

We’re lucky. An estimated 1 billion people living across some of the world’s mega cities don’t have any rights over the property or the land they live in. From the slums of Cantagalo in Rio to Kibera in Nairobi, multiple generations of people are being governed by an underworld of illegal networks – a para-economy run by gangsters – who they rely upon to supply services they otherwise would not have access to because of their status. 

The implications are huge and have a ripple effect on everything, from health and wellbeing to conflict and violence. Think about it: without property to use as collateral, you are less likely to borrow money from respectable lenders; governments and corporations are less likely to pay for infrastructure and basic services if ownership is unclear, and the stability of the whole community is at risk.

Security and ownership of land is critical to social and economic empowerment. Yet this is an area full of paradoxes. Just try to put some of these numbers into perspective: land and property can form up to 75% of a nation’s wealth yet three quarters of the world’s population cannot prove they own the land on which they live or work. In fact, 90% of all Africa’s land is still completely undocumented.

This vacuum of rights affects women the most.

It is most widespread in South Asia and the Middle East/North Africa region. In MENA in particular, an estimated 25 million urban women lack equal constitutional and statutory property rights.

Country specific data also offers striking insights. Take Uganda. Here the proportion of men owning land is 21 per cent higher than the proportion of women. Traditionally, women do not have land rights independently. Secure land rights for women depend on the strength of the relationship with their husband’s family and clan. Moreover, 20 years of conflict has impacted on this and as a result, women face a huge struggle to enforce their rights to land.

Women own less than 20% of the world’s land. A survey of 34 developing nations by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization puts that percentage as low as 10.

This is staggering if you consider that half of the world’s population is women.

More than 400 million of them farm and produce the majority of the world’s food supply. Yet female farmers lack equal rights to own land in more than 90 countries.

For women in particular, land and property ownership mark the end to economic uncertainty and vulnerability, and it has a potential impact on the entire community. Women invest 90% of their income in their immediate families and when they own their property, they have more power over household decisions, food security is enhanced, and prospects are greatly improved for their children and future generations.

Recent research even suggests that security and ownership of land decreases the risk of domestic violence for some women, because economic independence means they are empowered to leave an abusive relationship.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals reflect the importance of women’s rights to land and property, setting a specific target for equal rights to ownership and control over land by 2030.

Many nations, particularly in the developing world, have introduced progressive new laws to enshrine gender equity into land ownership. For example in Kosovo, where female ownership hovers at around 15 per cent, the lack of land titling systems in the wake of the war and break-up of Yugoslavia has left the vast majority of women without proof of land and property ownership. Here, work is being done to build a new system of titling, which will extend documentation to women.

But the reality is that even when changes to legislation take place, in some parts of the world there is still a huge gap between the law and customs.

In more than half of all countries, patriarchal tradition and ancient social beliefs threaten women’s land rights even when they enshrined in the rule of law. Take Bangladesh for example. While the country’s statutory laws give men and women equal right to purchase and own land, in practice this is limited by inheritance rules that are governed by Shariah Law, which place women and girls at a huge disadvantage.

Recent figures show that 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 dead husband’s property –which may go to his family or to their sons. It’s one thing to move legislation forward, but quite another to change custom and beliefs.

Land and property rights are the ultimate human rights – and in the hands of women, can act as a powerful economic accelerator.


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