Rome, 4-6 October 1999


Table of Contents







1. This paper1 attempts to highlight gender-related land tenure and land administration issues that call for a policy framework which will address development challenges and the demographic changes taking place in rural societies. Increasing population, urban growth and migration have had the combined effects of progressively altering the gender and age profiles of almost all of the world's rural communities. Recent work by FAO has found that it is not at all uncommon to find that de facto female-headed households form a substantial proportion (25 percent or more, or even sometimes a majority) of the total rural households in certain areas and that globally women comprise more than 40 percent of the agricultural workforce - a pattern that is found in all FAO regions and that is also expanding. The causes are not at all obscure and relate to the lack of adequate levels of investments and opportunities for people living in rural areas. Urban centres have been the "engine" of growth in all member countries of FAO. The migration to these centres has "pulled" males out of rural occupations and rural communities to a far greater degree than rural women. Rural demography profiles reflect this dynamic adjustment to economic change and opportunity as being female or child (as well as the elderly/retired) dominant.

2. These facts are well known and have been discussed in policy debates by the participants in this consultation. The recent World Food Summit (Rome, 1996) pointed out that if we are to meet the basic food needs of the projected world population (International Conference on Population and Development, Cairo, 5-13 September 1994) as well as eradicate the hunger afflicting an estimated 800 million food-deficit people, we must have more and better food production and distribution. The Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), which took place in Istanbul in June 1996, however, highlighted the fact that it is the city that is attracting investment as well as people. The majority of the world's population will soon live in cities - a trend that continues to accelerate.

3. The implications for agricultural land tenure policy are clear. We will have increasing demands on rural populations to provide ever more food of better quality on a steadily decreasing land base, as millions of hectares of prime agricultural land are lost each year to urban and industrial site expansion and as a result of environmental degradation. At the same time, the responsibility for meeting this challenge is falling on rural communities that are often dominated by de facto or de jure female-headed households and children. Women in male-headed households also often have prime responsibility for food production while men commonly concentrate more on cash crops. Women's roles in food production frequently go beyond providing labour and encompass major responsibilities for organizing the production process - recruiting additional labour and hiring mechanized services, as well as storing, selling or controlling the use of the crop. In other words, they are "own account farmers".

4. Another recent United Nations summit brought to the world's attention the other essential component of this emerging policy "hot-spot". The Women's Summit2 clearly and unequivocally made it impossible to ignore the fact that in most of today's societies women have very unequal access to, and control over, rural land and associated resources (water, woody plants, fishery resources, etc.).

5. Thus, there seems little hope of meeting the goal set by the World Food Summit of halving the number of severely undernourished people by 2015 without addressing the issue of the nature of the rights women will have to and over rural resources. First, food production by its nature is a long-term enterprise and requires physical and legal security for agricultural producers, whether they are men or women. Effective resource use also requires fair and secure access to basic infrastructures and services such as irrigation, transportation, education, credit/financial services and markets that underpin effective land use and improved agricultural technology.

6. Recognizing the complexity, this brief overview attempts to set out the main issues in addressing equitable land tenure policy development in the light of the increasingly important roles women are assuming in food production and rural resource management, as well as the kinds of information needed to establish new policy goals. This paper, in short, focuses on the rationale and opportunities for enhancing women's rights to land and other natural resources, highlighting:


7. Divergent models for agricultural land tenure and rural resource distribution have been at the core of all the social, economic and institutional transformations attempted in this century ranging from cooperatives and collectives to privatization, and from individual smallholdings to multinational agribusinesses. Each of these socio-economic systems has met with varying degrees of success and failure when applied in local circumstances. The more general lessons we have learned, however, include:

8. The recent research on the relationship between property rights and the effective use of related entitlements has not only radically altered our understanding of the dynamics of sustainable development, but is one of the foundations of contemporary models of economic growth and good governance. This is not particularly surprising in view of the fact that the societies with well-recognized property rights are also the ones that thrive economically and socially.3 The concepts and technological as well as legal tools for supporting and giving capacity to existing and new people's rights have evolved from a learning experience that has been taking place over the past two centuries. The institutional arrangements include land registration and cadastral systems, valuation and taxation systems, land-use planning and control, as well as other mechanisms required for effective land and credit markets.

9. It should be noted, however, that there is considerable confusion among development experts who have not kept abreast of the very rapid learning curve that has taken place during the past quarter of a century on the importance of including and enhancing so-called "customary" or "traditional" land tenure systems into modern land administration.4 The contemporary use of the land information system (LIS) based on spatial data infrastructure design makes it possible to handle traditional land tenure rights with the same ease as commercial contractual agreements in land use. The essential point of this discussion is that when referring to "modern" land tenure regularization there is no reason to assume that traditional forms cannot be easily handled. The use of the word "modern" in this case refers to the technology for recording and transacting rights, not to any particular dependence on a specific cultural or legal paradigm in the definition of these rights.5 However, a caveat is in order here. Traditional land tenure systems often adapt to today's fast-paced market/economic conditions more slowly and with more difficulty than "modern" systems based on written rights, especially since the latter benefit from an updating mechanism which is absent in the non-written traditional systems, i.e. the introduction of laws, decrees and new legal measures that incorporate already existing social practices. This permits a more rapid institutionalization of the management of the new respective rights and obligations by the members of the society in the utilization and possession of resources. Thus, in land tenure policy reform involving traditional or customary institutions, there is a special need to use participatory approaches.

10. Property rights cannot play much of an economic role when the institutional means for using these rights to enhance human activity are either weak or non-existent. Indeed, the global demand for secure and clear rights to rural resources has made it a priority of every Member Nation of FAO to upgrade its existing land tenure administrative systems. Thus, the streamlining of administrative, legal and technical procedures and processes, including land information management using mapping techniques and computerization of land records, has become a priority in every country represented at this consultation.

11. Obviously, one of the strongest links between government action and development is the ability to deal with the orderly access to the society's property and natural resources. Indeed, it is the nature of the social, political and economic relations that determine who has what rights to which resources, for how long, and for which purposes, that make up land tenure institutions. Land tenure institutions require strong government support to facilitate both good governance and democratic participation through the wide distribution of property rights. Access to resources, including access to land resources, that is gender-, ethnicity- and class-responsive is both a primary incentive and an essential mechanism to enhance democratic participation because property rights give individuals as well as their family and household members the social, economic and legal capacities they cannot have without them. This increased capacity of rural households is essential in the quest for food security.

12. For the current emphasis on decentralization of resource management to achieve the desired development goals, local populations must have the capacity to initiate new activities on the land. This places a renewed emphasis by policy-makers and technical experts on the household and its individual members. Yet, as has already been stated, the family structure is rapidly changing in nearly every society but, whatever new form it takes - from basic nuclear arrangements to extended families and wider communities - the family will remain the basic economic and social unit for development.6

13. One of the bitter lessons learned from more than five decades of experimentation with various forms of state, collective and corporate farming models is that they cannot replace the family [in the wider sense used in this paper] farm if sufficient production of basic food items is to be achieved.7 This is due to what is referred to as the management density available in the family farm household. The degree, however, to which families will be willing to exert their potential for management density will depend very much on the type of land tenure arrangement under which they work. Policies need to ensure that the household unit (and the individual men and women within it) has secure access to the means of production and/or employment that make up its income and food security strategies. Since wages are often seasonal and a supplementary source of income in subsistence farming regions of many developing countries, equitable access routes to land and to its benefits for all families (including urban farmers) is particularly important for economic security.

14. Good land tenure administration has not only to ensure economic viability but also environmentally sustainable land policies. Good stewardship of the land demands accountability, accountability requires clear responsibilities, and responsibilities derive from rights. How property rights, and therefore responsibilities, in land and natural resources are allocated within society has a significant environmental dimension. If segments of society (e.g. gender, class or ethnicity) are denied secure access to the land, short-term individual and family needs will supersede longer-term, sustainability goals. There will be little incentive to invest in the land and little accountability in maintaining it in a sustainable manner. "Legislated sustainability" (e.g. through laws against deforestation and overgrazing) will quickly be supplanted by de facto, expedient, short-term decision-making at the local level. This is graphically illustrated by the denuded hills that have been deforested by landless farmers in search of subsistence. Most countries have learned that providing land tenure security to these invading farmers makes them receptive and cooperative in developing multipurpose agroforestry production systems.


15. Traditionally, all agrarian societies developed institutional means for recognizing and defending women's rights to benefits from agricultural land. These instituted rights and obligations have been defined by religious and customary law, as well as by legislation and the courts. However, traditional laws are often unable to keep pace with the more dynamic social and economic conditions discussed in this paper. Traditional social structure has to adapt constantly in order to support new, non-traditional family units adequately in a rapidly changing environment. For instance, recent investigations supported by FAO found that more than 60 percent of the expendable income of agricultural households in the Sahel comes from off-farm employment; similar trends have been reported in Latin America. In Asia this often involves the long-term migration of women seeking domestic employment. Economic and physical survival, as well as investment in better cultivation technology, depends on a household geographically dividing prime human resource capital between the home community (women, children and the elderly) and in labour migration to urban/industrial locations. It is a delicate balancing act to maintain what is of lasting value from tradition and yet embrace the demands and opportunities of economic development. Land tenure traditions and their institutions are no exception.

16. Thus, there are many new pressures affecting traditional arrangements related to women and land that need to be understood and resolved at the family, community and national levels. To summarize, some of the greatest pressures include:

17. One of the many consequences of these factors is cited at the beginning of this paper: in an increasing number of rural districts there is a rapid rise in the number of rural families that have women as de facto or de jure heads of households.8 Many of these women include single parents, widows, divorcees, wives of migrant workers, the aged and the infirm, i.e. those with the least social power. They are largely without effective decision-making powers, often without a voice in community governance and, increasingly, without security as individuals under traditional law. Attempts to assert their rights can cause conflicts at the community and even national levels. Too often women are left holding whatever rights they have at the will of fathers, brothers, in-law relatives, as well as traditional leaders who, in a changing economic world, may not always give priority to the best interests of a woman and her children. Single, divorced or widowed women can end up dependent on the goodwill of distant family members who may or may not be able or willing to support them. Indeed, this highlights the importance of understanding the different processes involved in producing the variety of female-headed households found in a particular social setting and their relationship to differential access to resources. It is a situation that will call for differentiated policy intervention.

18. Inheritance rules may leave women who have initiative or education without the financial resources to embark on a profession or to start a business. Even when women invest in land they have traditionally used (for example, by adding irrigation or housing) they may find that they are quickly dispossessed with no judicial recourse. Thus, if agriculture is to attract and hold the entrepreneurial skills and investments of rural women, they will have to have access to the same kinds of protection in land tenure regularization institutions that men have.9

19. The need for more equitable rights to land can be viewed from the perspective that women form an increasingly important segment of the local and national economic and social capital in addition to providing primary family maintenance. It has also been shown that women tend to reinvest more resources in the family unit than men and this reinvestment is the building block for nutrition, health, education and effective poverty alleviation. Indeed, recent studies in both developed and developing countries have shown that the success rate of both rural and urban small businesses started by women is significantly higher than for those started by men. Therefore, banks and service industries are learning to support rather than oppose women's initiatives; it is in their self-interest to support women with entrepreneurial skills. Similarly, it is in a nation's self-interest to invest resources in those parts of society that provide sustainable development.

20. The increased social, economic and legal capacity given through full participation in land tenure institutions stimulates participation in marketing associations, cooperatives and extension programmes which benefit individuals and society at large. Women's management skills may be better recognized and this, in turn, may translate into other productive and entrepreneurial activities. Reducing the uncertainty about women's rights to land may also open up opportunities for credit and financing, thus adding value to local and national development activities.

21. The total package of property rights in land can be expanded indefinitely. For example, each time a municipality passes a regulation affecting land use, it is in effect adding a new property right held by the community. Ways in which the equity, security and effectiveness of women's rights can be enhanced without taking away the rights of others include (but are certainly not limited to) the following:

Being an active part of the world community

22. All nations today are part of a global community reinforced by telecommunications, transportation, economic realities and political relations. The Member States of the United Nations have recognized the positive need to protect and assert the rights of the weak in this global community, whether they be landlocked nations desiring a share of global ocean resources, refugees from hunger and war, or such groups as women, children and indigenous people who have had little participation in the traditional national policy-making processes. Many Member States have signed, if not ratified, international declarations and conventions, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which recognize the need for equality of rights for women. Each step towards reconciliation and explicit inclusion of women is also a step towards creating greater opportunities for all citizens.


23. It is recognized by everyone that development policy needs to be based on a comprehensive inventory of information. Information is also the basis for the consensus needed for effective and democratic implementation of public policies. The problem is that much of the information is yet to be collected that decision-makers need to have in order to:

24. This section provides an overview of the types of information or knowledge that would serve these objectives. Each subsection includes a short evaluation of the difficulties encountered in obtaining and using this information, as well as recommendations for the improvement of the information resources.

Gender-based knowledge of the land tenure and land market situation

25. This includes information on the types of rights women and men have and of the kinds of transactions and land uses they engage in, including ethnic and/or geographical differences. Of special significance would be age profiles and the degree of urban/peri-urban agricultural activities, as well as the involvement of women in informal land markets, sharecropping, leasing or other transactions. Knowledge of informal arrangements may be as important as, if not more important than, standard information on formal law and practices. In rural development, it would be useful to encourage systematic research into existing arrangements that already favour women's access to and management of resources.

26. This is the most difficult information to obtain: first, because both formal and informal arrangements will be mainly local developments and undocumented; and, second, because complete, international indicators for describing the wide variety of land tenure and transaction arrangements do not exist. In gender case studies and evaluations, information has sometimes been included on the number of titles issued, the number of transactions registered or even the number of female-headed households. However, this can sometimes provide partial and often misleading information. Problems occur, for example, because:

27. Furthermore, case studies and project evaluations have the drawback of being snapshots of a situation at one time and in one locality and are therefore difficult to use for analysis of dynamic situations, trends and national issues.

28. Future strategy. There is a need for in-depth research on significant, reliable land tenure indicators disaggregated by gender, as well as other categories such as age, ethnic or religious group, geographical location and marital status that can be tested and used in national census and statistical analysis, as well as in broader case studies. FAO has begun work in this area, through case studies as well as a preliminary examination of ways to identify and measure qualitative and quantitative benefits of land tenure. Such indicators need to be in simple terms so that they can be readily understood by both respondents and researchers.

Knowledge of legal, economic and cultural barriers

29. One way of collecting this information is by comprehensively reviewing all sources of property law, as well as all procedures for acquiring, transferring, mortgaging and using land rights - the "law-in-action". This should be complemented by analyses of land markets and the general economic and social resources women have for accessing, using and deriving benefits from land. The objective would be to identify legal and de facto impediments in access to land and complementary resources, and barriers for women in particular. In many cases the barriers may be gender-neutral. Information derived from the analyses should include:

30. Some countries have conducted such studies (although not necessarily for gender implications) when undergoing major legal or economic reform programmes. While the information may have been collected for different objectives, it may be useful in identifying potential barriers from a gender perspective as well.

31. Future strategy. When commissioning studies for economic, legal or social programmes, countries should ensure that gender is one of the impact indicators used in conducting the analyses, which will also benefit related land reform projects.

Knowledge of the range of policy options and their implications

32. There has been little systematic documentation of the range of policy options for addressing problems related to women's access to land. Documentation is either project- and case-specific, or it consists of texts and articles with options for improving security of land rights without specific reference to gender. The development of a framework for identifying and evaluating the full range of options, based also on good practices and lessons learned, is needed to assist decision-makers. In some cases, these options will be country- and even region-specific, but a framework of the wider options would still be a useful reference point.

33. Evaluation criteria for deciding on the best set of options to enhance equity for both women and disadvantaged males might include, for example:

34. An integrated participatory research effort is probably the best instrument for developing such a framework of options with examples of evaluation criteria. Such a framework should be based on examination of what has (or has not) worked in other countries and why it has (or has not) worked.

Ex post project and case study evaluations

35. A common problem in development projects related to land is that experiences are repeated without knowing what other projects tried to achieve and whether previous methodologies worked or not, and the reasons for this. Projects need to be monitored for impact and sustainability, not only during implementation but also at agreed time intervals afterwards. These evaluations should be based on objective criteria that can help to extend international experience as well as enhance ongoing programmes and projects in the country. Results should be recorded officially and made available to those responsible for future policy and programme decisions in a format that can easily aid their understanding of what has been tried before and how well it achieved its objectives.

36. A major problem in evaluations of projects designed to include gender aspects is the lack of objective indicators and evaluation criteria. Too often these are not clearly specified in the original terms of reference or objectives for the project. The result can be a subjective assessment designed to support a second stage or additional development.

37. Development agents should continuously sensitize women in regard to existing norms and practices that favour their utilization of resources. Meanwhile, the costs in terms of production, income and family well-being that are the result of inequalities between the two sexes in access to, and benefits from, resources should be clearly explained to male members of rural communities.

38. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), international lending institutions and other donors need to put more emphasis on documenting what the projects related to land intended to achieve with respect to gender issues, what the eventual impacts of the projects were, the lessons learned and the best practices suggested. This information should be widely and readily available to the recipient country, to other organizations, and to researchers.


39. Equitable access to land should be an essential part of realistic planning and policy-making in all countries. As was pointed out in the introduction, however, neither equity nor access to land alone is enough. People also need access to complementary productive and institutional resources, including financing, training, open and effective markets, technology, infrastructure and other natural resources such as water, if the potential benefits from land rights are to be achieved.

40. The main argument of this paper so far is that providing women with secure and effective access to land can benefit families, communities and countries through, for example:

41. However, these benefits can only be fully realized if the strategies adopted for improving women's access to land work in practice and if decision-makers are aware of those strategies that do, or do not, work. Decision-makers need to know about the quality and distribution of rights in land, the economic and cultural impediments that limit women's effective and secure access to land and the benefits that can be achieved by enhancing women's access. They also need to know what are the options for improving equitable access to land and to be able to evaluate the full range of the implications of these options.

42. The long-term challenge for Member Nations of the United Nations and other concerned organizations will be to attain a better understanding of the dynamics of land tenure systems and, more specifically, the changing role of women in the rural economy. To accomplish this and to reap the benefits of more gender-sensitive and effective land policies, programmes and projects, it is necessary to begin systematically compiling more and better information about women and land tenure. Currently, this information, if available at all, is scattered among various project databases, cases studies, official statistics and registries, and research literature. Land reform is nowadays underscored as an example of a policy that can increase both equality and output.10 Ensuring more equitable access to land for women as a part of the effort to achieve sustainable agriculture and rural development is crucial to attaining the increased economic activity which would result in better living standards, particularly health and literacy, improved use of natural resources, durable reforms, participation and democracy.


This paper is based on the references listed in a separate volume entitled, Women's access to benefits from land and natural resources. A bibliography. Land Tenure Service, FAO, Rome, 1999.

1 This paper is provided by the Land Tenure Service (SDAA) of FAO's Sustainable Development Department. It is the product of a team headed by Dr Sue Nichols. The Land Tenure Service welcomes comments.

2 The Fourth World Conference on Women: Action for Equality, Development and Peace, Beijing, 4-15 September 1995.

3 The bibliography on this point is far too vast to cite here, but see D. North (1990. Institutions, institutional change and economic performance. Cambridge University Press) for its effect on institutional economic thinking. Hernando DeSoto (1993. The missing ingredient. The Economist, 11-17 September: 8-10) has provided both practical as well as easily accessible public arguments.

4 This is well illustrated in two recent publications by FAO land tenure experts. See G. Ciparisse (1998. Accès à la terre pour tous en Afrique noire: une utopie? Land Reform, Land Settlement and Cooperatives, 98(2): 45-54); or J. Riddell (1997. Réformes des régimes fonciers: les nouvelles tendances, p. 63-76. In Politique des structures et action foncière au service du développement agricole et rural, Paris. CNASEA) which contains an extensive bibliography on recent literature.

5 See the exposition of how to view and deal with both "customary" and derived natural resource rights in common resource management systems in D. Bromley (1991. Environment and economy: property rights and public policy. New York, Blackwell).

6 There is extensive literature showing that applying the cultural constructs of "family" or "household" from one society to another (even within the same region) can lead to very serious misunderstanding of the existing situation. The meaning and, therefore, social content that constitute a particular household are a product of the power, class, affective and idiosyncratic, as well as land resource tenure, relationships. The complexity that constitutes the gender dimension in household members' rights and access to natural resources is amply documented in a special working bibliography prepared by the Land Tenure Service entitled, Women's access to benefits from land and natural resources (Rome, 1999).

7 Considerable attention is given by the press to the corporate farm in North America. However, a close analysis of the data reveals that more than 80 percent of the farms in Canada and the United States are family farms. The apparent rise of corporate farming at the expense of family farming is explained by the fact that many farming families are forming family corporations to benefit from taxation and other legal advantages offered under existing corporate law.

8 As was documented at Habitat II, this is also a growing urban phenomenon. The need for addressing the gender issue in property rights is not exclusively a rural one.

9 FAO is currently testing a methodology for understanding both the rate and the direction in female resource inheritance patterns in a research project headed by A. Abraham and J.-P. Platteau, University of Namur.

10 See J. Stiglitz. 1998 (July). Distribution, efficiency and voice: designing the second generation of reforms. Brasilia, World Bank.