Women's right to land: a human right

A recipe for food insecurity: Women grow most of the family food but rarely control the land it's grown on

Imagine a woman in a developing country who has spent several years tilling a garden plot, making the soil fertile and rich so it can grow food for her family. One day her husband decides to take away the plot -- the soil she has enriched is just what he needs to grow the fruit trees that provide the family income. He is the head of the household, and the decision is not to be discussed. She ends up with a less fertile plot farther away from the house, where she has to start all over again.

Land rights are human rights, and women and men should have equal rights
Photo: FAO/O. Argenti

Millions of rural women around the world, have very limited land tenure rights -- the set of rights held by an individual or group to land, including rights to own, control and use the land. For women, control of land rights has always been difficult, but it has been made worse by the ongoing shift from food crops to commercial crops.

"With globalization, the demand for cash crops has grown sharply," says Zoraida Garcia, an FAO specialist on gender and land tenure. "As a result, the land on which women formerly grew food for their families is now being shifted to commercial production, which is generally controlled by men. Lack of rights and security regarding land is one of the most serious obstacles to increasing the agricultural food production and income of rural women."

While the proportion of women heads of rural households continues to grow, reaching almost one third in some developing countries, less than 2 percent of all land is owned by women. In many societies, tradition and laws are an obstacle to women's ownership of land, either through purchase or inheritance. And women's access to other resources crucial for food production -- such as water and credit -- is also limited.

Ownership but no control

Access to land, whether privately or communally owned, is not always a matter of legal rights. "Security of tenure can be attained by ownership and access, but it also depends on control of the land and the right to use it. And this is often determined by tradition and economics," says Ms Garcia.

In Nicaragua, for example, laws dictate joint ownership by husband and wife. This legislation has provided a useful tool for improving women's access to land. However in practice, this is not enough, as the man is often the only one who can get credit to buy inputs such as seeds, tools and fertilizer. In many other countries women have the right to inherit and own land, but by tradition the use of the land is decided by men, who are the only ones officially recognized as farmers.

For women, control of land rights has always been difficult
Photo: FAO/O. Argenti

A human right

"What it comes down to is a failure to recognize women as farmers," says Ms Garcia. "They are recognized as rural workers and as part of the family labour force, but not as farmers in their own right." This has consequences for the growing number of female-headed households, as women have less access to credit and inputs, and receive only 5 percent of agricultural extension services worldwide. "Rural women are among the poorest in the world," she says. "But this is not about charity. Land rights are human rights, and women and men should have equal rights."

For the past ten years FAO's Gender and Development Service has addressed the issue of land tenure and women's right in various ways. An important task has been advising governments around the world on how to make agrarian reform programmes more gender sensitive. "Governments need to recognize women as farmers and landowners, and this is important when land tenure reforms are initiated,' says Ms Garcia.

Strengthening women's position

Research on the different ways in which men and women have been affected by existing land tenure systems is also an important part of the work done by FAO's Gender and Development Service. "We provide support to research institutions to develop case studies on women's access to land," says Ms Garcia. "But there are gaps in the research, and we need to know more about the consequences of different legislation and land tenure systems. Only by gathering knowledge can we push to further strengthen women's position regarding land."

According to Ms Garcia, the first task is to create awareness within FAO, other development agencies and governments about the importance of recognizing women's right to land. "FAO needs to incorporate the gender aspect in all activities regarding agriculture and land tenure, both when working with governments and in the villages," she says. Women also need to be included in the training meetings and extension services. "If women are not present in the meetings where the right to land and other resources is discussed and decisions taken, how will they know their rights or have influence? FAO has to help ensure women's involvement and empowerment."

8 March 2002


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