Thinking Holistically About Women's Land Rights
Women’s land rights are increasingly recognized as one important pathway to women’s economic empowerment. A recent systematic analysis of research on women’s land rights finds positive associations between women’s ownership (or perception of ownership) of land and outcomes such as increased decision making and bargaining power (Meinzen-Dick, Quisumbing, Doss & Thies 2017). The analysis finds consensus among the papers reviewed that land-owning women have more decision-making authority than non-land-owning women on issues including farming efforts, land-related investments, household purchases and spending on education and medical care for self and children.
This recognition – that land-owning women gain a voice in decision-making about how to use and invest household assets – has important implications for development programming. Over the past decade, USAID has worked in over 20 countries to strengthen the land and property rights of local peoples. In many cases, these interventions have helped to jointly title property in the name of husbands and wives or provide women with legal recognition of their rights as sole property owners. The formal recognition of legal land rights is one step in the process of building more resilient households and, ultimately, more resilient communities.
However, this research also suggests that titling and land registration efforts, particularly in rural areas, could have a multiplier effect for women and their families if they expand women’s access to information about locally appropriate agricultural investments, land uses and land management practices. In addition to building women’s awareness of their legal rights to land and property, development programming has the potential to drive more change by raising women’s awareness of soil and water conservation techniques, profitable crop choices and issues related to leasing out and leasing in agricultural land, among others. Rather than seeing the delivery of a document – a land use certificate or a property title – as the end goal of an intervention, reframing the end goal as enhancing the capacity of women and men to effectively and productively use the asset that the project secures should lead to more resilient, prosperous and peaceful communities.
These insights are already reflected in a number of USAID’s land projects. To take just one example, the Property Rights and Artisanal Diamond Development II project (PRADD II) in Cote d’Ivoire had an overarching goal of increasing the percentage of diamonds entering the legal chain of custody in compliance with the Kimberley Process. At the same time, the project worked to improve the livelihoods of the men and women living in artisanal diamond mining communities. To strengthen women’s livelihoods, PRADD II helped women form a farmers’ cooperative then gain access to and secure customary rights over exhausted mining sites around the town. Local land chiefs provided women with rights over these mined out lands because they perceived them to be low quality. As Silué Tiewa, President of the Fotemowoban Women’s Group noted: “The land chief…gave us this big portion of land as our own to start whatever farming activities we wanted on it. He didn’t think that this land would be very useful since it is full of holes from mining activities, but it is perfect for rice and vegetable farming since we have year-round access to water.”
Securing the women’s land rights was not the end of the effort, but it was a critical step. Once women’s land rights were secured, PRADD II provided tools and local women’s groups hired young men to fill in most pits – the deepest served as wells for dry-season irrigation. When the land was ready for planting, the project contracted with the national rural development agency, ANADER, to help the women increase crop production by teaching them improved techniques for growing vegetables and rice. Through this combined process of securing rights, rehabilitating lands and expanding access to technical knowledge, PRADD II helped improve local livelihoods. It also helped empower women who are often marginalized in this traditional environment. The combination of secure land rights, enhanced decision-making authority and information to exercise that authority in a productive way helped to transform land and lives.
PRADD II is just one example of how USAID is enhancing women’s economic empowerment by providing them with more secure land rights and then coupling that effort with critical awareness raising of the productive opportunities in a location. This strategy of purposefully linking land registration efforts with capacity building to help rural women improve the use and management of land and gain access to local and regional markets delivers a more holistic approach to women’s economic empowerment. In turn, these efforts help USAID achieve its goal of ensuring that partner communities are better able to build a prosperous future for themselves and their children.
At the time of drafting the author was working as a USAID implementing partner.