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This study analyses the gender dimension of agriculture-related legislation, examining the legal status of women in three key areas: rights to land and other natural resources; rights of women agricultural workers; and rights concerning women’s agricultural self-employment activities, ranging from women’s status in rural cooperatives to their access to credit, training and extension services.

Throughout the world, women constitute a large portion of the economically active population engaged in agriculture, both as farmers and as farm workers, and play a crucial role in ensuring household food security. However, they often face obstacles in access to land and other natural resources, to formal employment, and to credit, training and extension services. These obstacles may stem from directly or indirectly discriminatory norms and/or from entrenched socio-cultural practices, and entail negative consequences not only for women themselves, but also for their family members, especially in the case of female-headed households.

In recent years, greater attention has been devoted to gender at both national and international levels, and considerable efforts have been made to improve women’s position in society in general and in the legal system in particular. Gender-specific provisions have been adopted at the international level not only within human rights treaties (particularly the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and its Optional Protocol), but also in instruments relating to the environment and to sustainable development, such as the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development and the Convention to Combat Desertification. Moreover, the international community solemnly affirmed its commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment at the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action), at the World Food Summit (objective 1.3 of the Plan of Action), and in other recent international conferences.

Important changes have taken place also at the national level. Many countries have adopted national plans of action and established institutional machinery to follow up the Beijing Platform for Action. More generally, legislative reforms have brought about changes in family law (toward equality between spouses and full legal capacity of married women), in succession law (toward greater gender equality in inheritance rights) and in land law (toward elimination of discriminatory norms, toward affirmative action for women’s access to land in agrarian reform programmes, toward joint titling, etc.). In some cases, discrimination against women has been prohibited with specific regard to access to credit and to the exercise of self-employment economic activities. Moreover, women’s legal status has been improved by judicial decisions declaring the unconstitutionality of discriminatory norms.

However, in many countries the implementation of legislation protecting women’s rights is constrained by entrenched cultural practices, by lack of legal awareness, by limited access to courts and by lack of resources. These implementation problems are generally stronger in rural areas than in urban areas. In these cases, effective interventions to improve women’s legal status need to include not only legislative reform but also steps to bridge the gap between law and practice.

This study briefly reviews the relevant international instruments and focuses on national legal systems, examining the legislation and case law of ten countries reflecting different cultural environments and legal traditions. Particular attention is paid to customary norms, which are applied in the rural areas of many of the covered countries, and more generally to socio-cultural practices affecting the application of statutory legislation. The result is an analysis identifying the main legal and some non-legal factors that affect the existence and exercise of women’s agriculture-related rights. A correct understanding of these factors is necessary in order to identify the legislative and other interventions that are required to improve women’s rights.

The five chapters of the study are structured as follows: chapter I provides definitions and identifies applicable norms; chapter II deals with women’s rights to land and other natural resources; chapter III examines the rights of women agricultural workers; chapter IV deals with the rights of self-employment rural women; and chapter V summarizes the main findings of the study, addresses some major implementation issues, and identifies possible interventions to improve women’s rights.

This study is the outcome of research work conducted at the FAO Legal Office by Lorenzo Cotula, FAO Consultant. Inputs, comments and support to the study were provided by Marcela Ballara, Blanca Fernandez, Elisabeth Francis, Zoraida Garcia, Adriana Herrera, Yianna Lambrou, Jon Lindsay, Junia Lionel, Rashida Manjoo, Kerstin Mechlem, Ali Mekouar, Federico Nicolini, Hubert Ouedraogo, David Palmer, Sandy Paterson, Ivon Pires, Emira Sghaier and Margret Vidar.

Lawrence Christy
Chief, Development Law Service
Legal Office

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