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Module II: Gender, rural fertility/mortality and land tenure

Module II: Gender, rural fertility/mortality and land tenure

(Topouzis/du Guerny, SDWP, November 1995)

What have gender and rural fertility/mortality to do with land tenure a?

(a Land tenure refers to a collection of rights, only some of which are held at any one time by a particular individual or social unit. These range from those held by a society's political entities on down to individuals who may have their tenures secondarily from other individuals (such as a sharecropper who has his tenure rights from someone who has leased the land from yet a third person}. All of these 'land tenures' co-exist. In fact, it is quite common to have different individuals holding different tenures to the same piece of property but using it at different times. In West Africa, one group may own' rights to the harvest from gum arabic trees, another group to pasture their animals in the grove, yet another group of individuals will have gleaning rights to all wood fall. Jim Riddell, Statement on Land Tenure for the Agrarian Reform and Land Settlement Service, FAO, 1993, p. 1.

Acknowledgments: This module is the product of a collaborative effort between the Population Programme Service (SDWP) and the Agrarian Reform and Land Settlement Service (SDAA), with inputs from the Integration of Women in Development Service (SDWW). Special thanks are due to Jim Ridell, Paolo Groppo and Richard Trenchard who devoted much of their time and contributed significantly to the module and to Tim Aldington, Sally gunning and Alain Marcoux for their comments.)

The need to link agricultural and population policies has increasingly been recognized in recent years. Major agricultural development goals, such as improvements in land productivity, the establishment of secure cultivation rights and the redistribution of land are believed to be influenced by demographic conditions. Similarly, demographic behaviour and demographic trends are shaped by the rural environment, including land/tenure arrangements and conditions.

An important element in the land-fertility/mortality interface is gender. Institutional arrangements and socio-economic and socio-cultural norms can contribute differently to the experiences of men and women in relation to land and fertility. Whilst the issue concerns all rural households, it is also important to recognize some of the specific constraints that affect female-headed households.

The objective of this module is to stimulate discussion among land tenure, gender and population specialists on the interface between gender, rural fertility/mortality and land/tenure in order to identify key policy issues and related research needs. The following questions are addressed: What are the main constraints to men's and women's access to land, to security of tenure and to sustainability and how do these obstacles impact on fertility and mortality? Do certain tenure conditions contribute to specific demographic responses? If so, what is the role of gender therein? How can changes in tenure systems contribute to favourable demographic responses, particularly with regard to fertility/mortality?

Much of the existing literature on the subject generated by demographers has sought to establish direct linkages and deterministic relationships between the land fertility/mortality interface. Land tenure specialists, however, believe that such direct linkages may have oversimplified these relationships as well as the complexities of such relationships vis-a-vis land tenure systems. This module seeks to develop a more holistic framework to the interface between land/tenure and fertility/mortality within a gender perspective. The framework is predicated on the assumption that differing household demographic conditions demand differing land and tenure arrangements, and similarly, that certain land and tenure arrangements are better suited to certain types of household demographic situations.

Figure 1 Interface between land tenure and demography

demographic condition (fertility/mortality) ® tenure response tenure condition ® demographic response (fertility/mortality)

In other words, there are optimal land tenure arrangements for given demographic situations. When the equilibrium between the two (land tenure arrangements and demographic responses) is upset, there is a need for policy intervention to facilitate the necessary adjustments.

The assumption that differing household demographic conditions demand differing land and tenure arrangements and vice versa, however, does not mean that generalizations can be made about the precise nature and impact of these relationships. Indeed, one of the criticisms that can be levelled at much of the existing literature is the tendency for deductive over determinacy: many of the arguments and conclusions reached are based on oversimplified assumptions and generalizations. This is due to the fact that general rules have been arrived at out of certain relationships and trends between fertility/mortality and land tenure from specific contexts. Such generalizations, however, can be misleading. Firstly, the relationships between gender, land tenure and demography are complicated and mediated by a wide range of other (non-demographic) factors. Secondly, these relationships are largely determined by local conditions and are thus context-specific.

For instance, demographers have argued that certain forms of land tenure systems may leave families little choice other than to have more children to ensure economic security and old-age support. In the case of Mexico, to give but one example, tenancy and fertility have been found to be positively related in the ejido b system. Crop lands are granted to individual families who cannot sell, lease, or mortgage the land. Heirs may receive rights to the land but these may be lost if the land is not cultivated for two consecutive years. Thus, demographers have argued that the ejido system of granting land on a usufruct basis creates pro-natalist incentives for women (the motives behind it being family labour, land retention, consumption).1

(bEjidos are land areas that were distributed to the people under the revolution. of 1910-1917. These areas were made up of individual allotments consisting of family plots which were to/be farmed collectively. FAO, The Legal Status of Rural Women in Nineteen Latin American Countries, 1994, p. 44.)

While tenancy and fertility may be positively related in the case of the ejido system, it would be wrong to draw policy recommendations on the basis of this example alone. In other words, it may not be the system of granting land on a usufruct basis that creates pro-natalist incentives for women as such. The elide system is shaped by the specific socio-economic, socio-cultural, and political setting in which it takes place; without it, the tenure response could be very different and thus not possible to apply in other circumstances.

The interface between gender, land tenure and fertility/mortality should be approached inductively. To this effect, there is a need to develop a broad conceptual framework and identify the range of local/context-specific factors that influence related inter-relationships in practice. In so doing, it is possible to develop broad guidelines that can facilitate the incorporation of land and tenure considerations into population and gender programme formulation and execution procedures. The proposed guidelines are based on two hypotheses. In any given rural context, a change in household demographic profile demands, in theory, an equivalent land or tenure-related response. This response may include changes in land size, agricultural land use, tenure arrangement, intensity, etc. Likewise, one can assume that a change in land or tenure may, in theory, permit or allow an equivalent demographic response.

Additional considerations, however, are important as these assumptions are not based on empirical evidence. Demographic responses are not dependent solely on tenure conditions and vice versa. Nonetheless, the impact of certain population programmes may be reduced if agricultural producers are not able to make the desired or appropriate land-related responses. Similarly, tenure responses are not universal. They vary according to geographical region, locality, producer-type, proceeding household demographic characteristics and strategies, prevailing socio-cultural attitudes, household socio-economic conditions, etc. As a result, one cannot ascribe a given response to a changing condition without examining the array of local and supra-local factors and relations and determine the impact of demographic and land/tenure changes on a household. Nonetheless, a conceptual framework can help to identify certain key areas for analysis and delineate significant inter-relationships between gender, land tenure and fertility/mortality.

The capacity of a household to make an appropriate land or tenure-related response depends on three conditions: land access, security and sustainability. Firstly, are men and women able to acquire the land that they need? Secondly, are they guaranteed the rights and conditions that permit secure use of this land (including laws, customs, rules and regulations, etc.)? Thirdly, are households able to use the land in a sustainable manner? This last point refers to the use and management of land resources in a rational manner that sustains and enhances the land's productive potential. It avoids degradation and depletion of resources through appropriate management practices which both yield production benefits while being conservation effective. If these three conditions are met, one may conclude that the system can accommodate any potential land or tenure-related response that demographic changes may induce or demand.

The analysis of the gender, land tenure and fertility/mortality interface should therefore focus on the identification of systemic, local household constraints that inhibit these responses. Are there, for example, context-specific or systemic, national constraints that inhibit men's and women's access to land? These constraints may vary according to location, producer type, and household income. While they do not necessarily lead to changes in demographic behaviour, they can contribute to such changes, along with other factors. Policy-makers need to be aware of the likely impact of certain types of constraints that can adversely affect the realisation of appropriate tenure or land adjustments, and more importantly, of the need to examine the nature of these constraints in a given area/context.

A further dimension to land needs to be added. Land and tenure issues are often gender-specific: women and men experience them differently. As a result, it is necessary to incorporate a specific gender component into the conceptual framework. This will permit the inclusion of specific problems and constraints that characterize the land and tenure experiences of men and women.

In reality, the constraints and needs of rural women demand added emphasis and attention to address their problems and needs. Formal and informal laws, customs, rules and regulations tend to discriminate against women across developing regions. These disadvantages impact both on female-headed households and on female members of male-headed households. In the former instance, discrimination through traditional legislation and socio-cultural customs can impose severe constraints on the capacity of such households to access or maintain land. In the case of the latter, attention needs to be directed at the intra-household division of activities, labour and land utilization strategies.

Too often, research, policies and programmes have failed to examine the differing experiences of men and women within the household. These differences can have e substantial impact on the ability of households to respond to demographic change. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, women are largely responsible for household food security. Similarly, in many instances, women's access to land is determined by land allocation mechanisms that differ from those that determine men's access. In such cases, the ability of a family to support new family members is largely dependent on female access to land, and not family access to land. It is clear, however, that in these circumstances, gender disparities in land access and tenure security impact most on ate facto and de jure female-headed households. As a result, specific attention needs to be directed toward the experiences and constraints affecting these households.

The approach presented in this module involves several breaks with previous approaches to the land/demography interface. Firstly, it offers a broader, more holistic conceptual framework that focuses on structural constraints. Secondly, it eschews generalizations and avoids assumptions. instead, it embodies a call to respect local specificity and differences between experiences. According to this approach, relationships between population, land/tenure and gender are determined by to-car conditions and constraints. Each context, is therefore, different. Demographers, gender specialists and policy-makers in general need to be made aware of these differences and of the need to undertake local analyses of conditions and constraints in order to better understand the precise relationships between these variables in a given context. Having emphasized the need for local specificity, however, it is also possible to develop broad guidelines to help policy-makers design optimal tenure arrangements for different types of households.

Linkages between gender, fertility/mortality and land tenure

1. Access to Land c

(c Access to land referee to the institutional mechanisms (public and private) through which people can acquire the right to own, use and transfer land.)

Differing household demographic conditions demand differing land arrangements. Land arrangements can be divided up between physical and rights based characteristics. The former concern the size and degree of fragmentation, location and quality of a landholding. The latter refer to the rights, security, conditionality and legal status that is conferred on an individual (or collective) piece of land. One of the most important factors determining the relationship between households and land is a household's ability to acquire access to land. An analysis of fertility and mortality trends should, therefore, include a study of the constraints affecting the ability of different types of households to acquire access to land in order to make appropriate responses to demographic changed d

(d Production, land use and other constraints should also be examined)

A series of typical general constraints inhibiting access to land can be identified:

Each of these generic constraints assumes a particular form and relevance according to specific conditions in different regions, socio-cultural and socio-economic contexts and as a result of the social, cultural, economic, political, production and demographic conditions of individual households. It is, therefore, not possible to make generalizations regarding the precise content and impact of these constraints apart from providing broad guidelines. Furthermore, as land access issues throughout most developing regions are characterized by high levels of gender inequality, additional emphasis will be placed on this issue.

Legal conditions: rules, regulations and customs

Every household decision to acquire additional land is governed by a set of rules and regulations. These may consist of national and/or local laws, customs or policy conditions. Each of these, however, imposes a distinct conditionality on the capacity of a household to gain access to land. It is essential, therefore, that the full range of legal, customary and policy conditions that affect access to land is analyzed in order to determine the differential levels of access afforded to different types of rural households, also broken down by gender. It is important to bear in mind that both modern and traditional laws tend to be interpreted in favour of male ownership and control and that in some cases, laws may bar women from acquiring or disposing of land without their husbands' consent. The impact on female-headed households can be severe: in the case of sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, widows may be forced to abandon the land altogether and return to their parents' village.

Transaction costs

Institutional procedures of acquiring land often involve transaction costs (i.e. registration fees) which may be prohibitively high for resource-poor farm households. Moreover, as women tend to have lower incomes than men, they may be less likely to afford the cost of transaction fees.


Many farm households do not have access to credit, as they do not have the collateral -- usually land title or cattle -- required for agricultural loans. The resulting vicious circle -- without land farmers cannot get credit and without credit they cannot acquire land -- often means that high fertility may be among the few alternatives available for these households to improve their tenure status. Socio-cultural constraints and stereotypes of non-creditworthiness tend to preclude women from obtaining access to many formal sources of credit, like banks, cooperatives and credit unions. An analysis of credit schemes in Kenya, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Zambia and Zimbabwe found that, by and large, women had received less than 10% of the credit directed to smallholders and 1% of the total credit to agriculture.2


Poor farmers often have fragmented plots of dispersed or remote land. As a result, their labour productivity is reduced while their workload is increased (they often require more time to transport tools, inputs and harvested produce from one plot to another and may spend more time commuting). These conditions increase the need for additional labour and may therefore encourage men and women to have more children. Women tend to have even more marginal and remote land than men, and in many cases, their land is less fertile.


A household's ability to acquire land is largely dependent on the combined income of its members (on- and off-farm income and remittances). Many farm households often do not have the income required to purchase land without credit. A large number of children is often perceived as one means with which to increase source of income within a family and thus be in a better position to acquire land. Women tend to have substantially lower incomes than men, as they engage in unpaid on-farm and domestic labour or informal sector activities which yield meager earnings.

Land prices

The price of land is often prohibitively expensive for many rural households, and particularly for female-headed households, which are often also denied credit. The response of resource-poor families may well be to opt for a large family in the hope that this may increase family income and therefore improved the ability of the household to acquire land.

Gender disparities in access to land

Disparities in male/female access to land are virtually universal. In Latin America, men and women do not have equal access to land even in those countries where legislation has removed gender barriers to land ownership.3 In this region, as well as in the Caribbean, women's access to land and to other property generally takes place through a male relative.

Like the- gender division of labour, the gender division of: private property is also regarded as natural and, therefore, not to be questioned. Women's effective exclusion from the possession and control of land is largely the basis of their subordination and dependence on men in rural India.

Source. G. Kelkar, "Violence Against Women in India" Bangkok, Asian Institute of Technology, Gender-Studies- Occasional-Paper 1, 1992, p. 16

In most of (patrilineal) Africa, the usufruct right to land prevails and customary land use practices often determine access to land in terms of use rights or ownership. Women are essentially temporary custodians of land passing from father to male heir, even though they may be de facto heads of household. As unpaid labourers on their husbands' land, while also cultivating separate plots in their own right, African women usually lose the rights to land following the death of their spouse4. Widows and divorced women have virtually no tenure or inheritance rights with which to ensure food security for themselves or their children (it is only through their male children, or male relatives from their husband's lineage that women have land tenure rights).5

Socio-economic and socio-cultural norms and institutional arrangements accentuate women's inequality of access to land, thereby indirectly encouraging high fertility. For instance, the fact that land title and land tenure tend to be vested in men may be a legal condition, but it also reflects socio-cultural tradition. In indict, daughters usually waive their land rights in favour of their brothers, to avoid being denounced as "selfish," and risk being alienated from their natal families.6 This often results in social pressure for women to bear as many sons as possible, as this can be their only means of security of access to land. In the Middle East, women rarely own land, and when they do, the land is often controlled or managed by male relatives until marriage, after which the titles are transferred directly to their sons.7

Even when women have user rights, they have limited rights over the fructus of their labour. As a result, their restricted bargaining power over the use of the fructus is not likely to be reflected in decisions regarding the education of girl children, known to delay age at marriage and childbearing, thereby reducing fertility and mortality.

2. Security of Tenure e

(e Security of tenure refers to the processes by which rights (and their value) are protected.)

Figure 2: Inheritance patterns of land in India - Inheritance of Land - India (based on 145 Indian communities)

Source FAO, Most Farmers in India are Women, 1991, p. 16.

Another important factor determining the relationship between rural households and land is security of tenure, or the ability of men and women to maintain the rights and conditions that permit secure use of the land. Security of tenure is to a large extent a social contract through which the community bestows to an individual or household the right to cultivate land. It is a critical socio-economic and psychological right granted to individual men and women or to groups under different forms of land tenure. Security of tenure allows individuals or groups to reap the benefits of their labour and ensures that their children have future control over the land. An analysis of fertility and mortality trends should, therefore, include a review of tine constraints (including gender) that affect the ability of different types of the households to maintain use rights in order to make appropriate responses to demographic change. Security of tenure is especially Important to women, given their lower socio-economic status end limited access to productive resources and services, as it affects both their productive and reproductive lives. Constraints to security of tenure are linked to a variety of factors, including land ownership, use, regularization (including demarcation and adjudication), among others.


Demographers have focused primarily on one aspect of security of tenure -- lend ownership -- and its interface with fertility, end have established a negative relationship between ownership f end family size. It has been argued the; ownership tends to reduce fertility by providing an alternative means of security in old age, thus substituting for children's support.

(f According to demographers. land ownership, includes all legal and institutional arrangements that specify how land is to be used and how produce from the land is to be distributed." See C. S. Stokes and W. A. Schutjer, "Access to Land and Fertility in Developing Countries," in Rural Development and Human Fertility, op. cit., p. 197. According to the FAO Land Tenure and Agrarian Settlement Service, ownership refers to the collection of rights held over land Institutions (legal and otherwise) are concerned with how rights are owned, accessed and transferred.)

According to demographers, research in the Philippines and India has shown that land owners have smaller families than tenants.8 A 1978 FAO study on Population and Socio-Economic Change in 18th and 19th century Hungary found that agricultural producers who did not own land had nothing to lose by having a large number of children, while farmers who owned land and who therefore had much to lose from subdividing the land for their children had lower rates of fertility.9 It has also been argued that the total effect of land ownership is to reduce fertility through its influence on female education and village-level traditionalism.10 However, ownership of land per se is only one element of security of tenure and does not necessarily guarantee use rights.

Land use

In many developing countries, security of tenure is guaranteed by the utilization of land. As long as a farmer cultivates the land, he/she enjoys security of tenure. However, under external pressures (population growth, competition for resources for instance on land that has the potential for irrigation), use rights can be eroded. Women tend to be among the first to lose use rights. Polygamy and high fertility (i.e. in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa), besides being factors related to labour requirements, are among the demographic mechanisms that have been devised by some societies to ensure land use rights.

Land and regularization (including demarcation of parcels and adjudication)

Demarcation of parcels refers to the physical identification and recording of specific plots that facilitates the resolution of ownership and/or border disputes. It is also a vital precondition for the development of land cadastres and record systems. The demarcation of parcels is a critical element of tenure security, without which, under certain conditions, land titling may become meaningless.g While demarcation of parcels is prevalent in many parts of Asia and Latin America, this is not yet the case in Africa, except for urban peripheries where the value of the land increases as a result of its investment potential. However, the demarcation of parcels is gradually becoming a priority in Africa as well because of land shortage due to degradation, increasing population pressure, etc.

(g For instance, in Nicaragua, over the past 40 years, succeeding governments distributed land titles to small farmers without first annulling old titles and without delimiting borders. These titles, instead of increasing security of tenure have created the opposite effect, aggravating land conflicts. This has fed to the emergence of a new type of "guerilla”. movement, in the place of Sandinistas and anti-Sandinistas, fighting for security of tenure. The case of Nicaragua should be viewed in a historical perspective: until the end of the 1980s, the pressure on land was kept under control through various policies (the Somozistas and the Sandinistas exerted firm control on land allocation). When the new government took power, ushering a new economic order, the rush for more fertile land was immediate and only at that moment did the problem of legal delimitation of borders become an issue.)

It has been argued that insecurity of tenure does not stem from indigenous systems themselves, but from external factors or pressures which do not take into account the structure and operation of existing tenure systems and their socioeconomic impact.11 Traditional land tenure systems are often unable to absorb outside pressures such as population pressure on land, war and civil conflict, drought, famine, environmental degradation, environmental- and conflict-induced refugees, the introduction of new technologies and cash crops, and government intervention. In such cases, insecurity of tenure and land tenure conflicts may result. In Kenya, public intervention led to increased tenure insecurity: the land titling programme failed to achieve its goals and security of tenure was further eroded because the formal registration system did not replace the indigenous one, as it was attempted without popular participation and therefore without due consideration of local traditions and norms.12

The implications of security of tenure become particularly relevant when external pressures menace this security. As seen in Figure 3, security of tenure is threatened when the population/arable land equation reaches a certain level, or threshold, beyond which it may lead to land conflicts. A single threshold would apply for a certain type of production system as the minimum surface required to ensure the survival of a family. When the population increases at a rate that exceeds the capacity of the production system to adjust in order to increase its productivity -- passing from line A to B -- the surface per capita will fall below this line or threshold. From that point -- or point C -- it can be argued that there emerges a problem of security of tenure as a result of population pressure on land affecting the existing system.

Figure 3: The Interface Between Land and Population

Gender disparities in security of tenure

Even when women have access to land, their security of tenure is often precarious. Under customary law, men and women usually have clearly defined rights to land, trees and water as well as usufruct rights, bestowed on them by the community elders. Women thus retain control over the land they use and its products.13 Traditional communal rights are in many regions being replaced by land tenure systems based on exclusive use, ownership and titling which tend to erode the rights of vulnerable groups, including women and minority, ethnic or nomadic groups. For instance, in Jamaica, in 1954, 56% of farms were owned by men, but by 1961 the figure had increased to 76%. Women's inequality of access to land was a result of the increase in purchase of legal titles, in line with the British legal tradition, that linked the use of the land with individual property. It also stemmed from the fact that land settlement schemes granted resources mainly to male heads of household, who were perceived to be the ones responsible for the sustenance of their family.14 This ignored the fact that in many parts of the world it in fact the women farmers who are largely responsible for food production and security.

Agricultural transformation is another factor contributing to the erosion of women's security of tenure. For instance, in the case of the Nair community in Kerala, India, the commercialization of agriculture and the subsequent demand for land eroded women's traditional land rights.15 Another generic example is the substitution of food crops with cash crops. Before the introduction of cash crops, women, who usually produce the bulk of food crops, are traditionally entitled to land. Once cash crops are introduced, however, the same right to land with high potential is claimed by the men who grow them. As cash crops are perceived to be more profitable than food crops, competition for land use rights results between men and women, which can lead to a progressive marginalization of women farmers formerly cultivating fertile land. Thus, combining factors like agricultural transformation with population growth can change the interface between gender, land and population (see Figure 3).

When security of tenure is menaced, women tend to be among the first groups to lose use rights. This may contribute to high fertility; families may perceive having a large number of children (with preference for sons) as a rational strategy through which to improve food and tenure security and ensure old-age support. The same strategy has been noted where women will strive for a large family to overcome the labour constraints induced by disabled husbands. However, it should be noted that this often takes place at the expense of sustainability and of future generations.

3. Sustainability

A third important factor determining the relationship between rural households and land is sustainability. This refers to the capacity of a farm household to utilize and manage land in a rational manner that sustains and enhances the land's productive potential, according to short-, medium- or long-term economic, social, cultural and environmental requirements. Similarly, it refers to the ability of the land or tenure condition to support any changes in land use and in agricultural practices that may arise owing to demographic adjustments. Sustainability, therefore, refers to the ability of a household to enjoy the benefits of production without jeopardizing future use of the land by those or other households.

Any analysis of fertility and mortality trends should thus begin with a study of the constraints that affect the ability of households to use land sustainably in order to make appropriate responses to demographic changes. Constraints inhibiting sustainability include a wide range of factors from size of landholding and quality of land to land management, water management and other factors. Examples of how size of landholding and quality of land can adversely affect sustainability are provided below.

Size of landholding

According to demographers, the size of landholding influences fertility by altering the cost-benefit of the value of additional children. Demographic studies in India, Bangladesh, Iran, Thailand, the Philippines and other developing countries have shown that larger landholdings may encourage greater fertility to accommodate increased labour requirements.16

More importantly perhaps, population pressure on land, an urgent problem in many developing countries, is an important constraint to sustainability and security of tenure. Rwanda, Somalia, Kenya, Burundi, Lesotho and Malawi are just a few countries which will be able to feed less than half their populations from their own land (even using high levels of farm inputs), if current trends of pressure on land continue. According to the State of the World's Population 1990, "in Rwanda, the average smallholder farmed a mere 1.2 hectares in 1984. With a total fertility rate of more than 8-children per woman, half of them male, each son would receive on average around 0.3 hectares at age of marriage. The grandsons, at projected fertility rates, would receive less than 0.1 hectares each, some time around the year 2040. Thus, in only 60 years, the size of the average landholding would have dwindled by more than 90% because of population growth.17 Obviously, such a projection is likely to result in out-migration once the land cannot assure self-sufficiency and survival.

When access to land per capita decreases, sustainability and security of tenure also decrease (see Figure 3). In fact, sustainability and security of tenure are substantially determined by the population/asset equation.

sustainability and security of tenure = assets (land, livestock, etc)/population

When sustainability and security of tenure are threatened as a result of land shortage, they may lead to land tenure conflicts which may even contribute, through exacerbating other conflicts (ethnic, etc.), to the outbreak of war (a case in point is Rwanda), or to migration, or both.

The absence of evidence pointing towards farm households having smaller families because of land shortage indicates that the value of children still lies in their l numbers to provide the labour force at home and the fields, and in the hope that at least some will find paid employment that will subsidize their parents' agricultural income. The fact that no positive relationship has been established between fertility levels and the growing demand for land (to augment existing holdings in order to cater for a growing family and/or to grow surplus crops for sale) is also indicative of the growing burden of farm tasks on women, and consequently of their growing need for child labour. High rates of absenteeism from school during the peak agricultural season, as well as primary school drop-out rates are one proof in this respect.18

Quality of land

A 1995 FAO report on Women, Agriculture and Rural Development covering nine countries in sub-Saharan Africa reports that women's landholdings tend to be less fertile than men's.19 This translates into greater labour requirements and lower productivity, which, in turn, put pressure on families to find alternative means of improving their tenure conditions, such as having more children.

Gender disparities in sustainability

A 1994 World Bank study on improving the productivity of women farmers in sub-Saharan Africa argues that over the past thirty years, efforts to improve women's rights to land have been neutralized as a result of growing population pressure on increasingly depleted land and the fact that as the quality of the land deteriorates, women are managing smaller plots.20 Depleted land, small, unsustainable plots and lack of tenure security often mean that women farmers have little incentive to invest in their land and to adopt new technologies and environmentally-sound agricultural practices. In view of these seemingly insurmountable constraints, agricultural extension workers are reluctant to work with women farmers, thereby further constraining women's productivity and income. As mentioned earlier, in the case of sub-Saharan Africa, where women are largely responsible for household food security, the question of sustainability largely falls upon the women (rather than the family); however, because of their limited rights and voice, women are often also the ones most ill-equipped to respond to changes in land or tenure conditions.

Female-headed farm households

Gender disparities in land access, tenure security and sustainability impact most on female-headed farm households. These tend to be poorer and more disadvantaged than households headed by men. In Bangladesh, many female heads of household are either landless or have small, marginal holdings. In Guatemala and Et Salvador, many of the farms managed by women are less than a half hectare. In Botswana, female headed farm households tend to work less land, have access to less farm equipment, and own fewer cattle and small stock than male-headed households.21

Women own less land than men in all developed and developing regions (see Table 1) and data on land disaggregated by gender are rare. In a 1995 FAO report on Women, Agriculture and Rural Development covering nine countries in sub-Saharan Africa, five were not able to provide gender-disaggregated data on land ownership and use (see Table 2). Female land ownership ranged between a low of 3% in Zimbabwe in the small-scale commercial sector to a high of 25% in the Congo and Tanzania. Women's holdings ranged from one-half the size of male holdings in Morocco to approximately 72% of the size of male holdings in Tanzania. In the Congo, nearly 60% of women cultivate less than 1 hectare of land and in Zimbabwe 86% of the women-headed households have less than the sample mean arable land holding. 22

Table 1: Percentage of Ownership of Cultivated Land by Women Farmers in Thailand, Trinidad, Nigeria, Syria

Land Ownership

Thailand %

Trinidad %

Nigeria %

Syria %

Personally owned





Husband's land





Gift from husband




Family land





Government land




Communal land




Squatted land




Rented land





Source: Manju Dutta Das, Improving the Relevance and Effectiveness of Agricultural Extension Activities for Women farmers, FAO, 1995, p. 37.

Table 2: Women, Land Ownership & Average Size of Holdings in sub-Saharan Africa


Women's Land Holdings as % of Total Agricultural Holdings

Average She of Holdings (Hectares)

















0.6 (1986/87)

0.89 (1986/87)


0.53 (1990191)

0.73 11990/9


Small-scale commercial sector: 3




Large-scale commercial


Source: Women. Agriculture and Rural Development. A Synthesis Report of the Africa Region in preparation of the fourth World Conference on Women, FAO, 1995, p. 23.

Given the fact that gender disparities in land access, tenure security and sustainability affect female-headed households more severely than other households, special attention needs to be directed at the experiences, constraints and needs of these households in agricultural and population policies and programmed.

Main policy issues and research needs

Land tenure is one of many variables indirectly influencing rural fertility and mortality. Linkages between gender, fertility/mortality and land tenure are the result of the interplay of a host of diverse factors (legal, socio-economic, socio-cultural, etc.). Thus, it is not land tenure per se which determines fertility and mortality trends, but the fact that different forms of tenure can limit or increase men's and women's choices, thereby influencing fertility/mortality. Thus, improving land tenure systems is not likely to directly affect fertility/mortality but can create a favourable environment for such change, provided that other conditions are also met. As seen above, children can contribute to reinforcing certain dimensions of security of tenure. High fertility can also enhance security of tenure through migration and remittances. But a change in land tenure conditions does not lead directly to a change in household size.

Land reform in Costs Rica in the 1970s'was viewed- as demeans of stemming rural-to-urban migration. However, an unintended effect. of land reform :was- to stimulate fertility and rural: population. growth. Thus, the failure to evaluate and coordinate public policies led to an unintended and undesirable consequence.

Source M. Seligson. “Public-Policies in Conflict: Land Reform and: Family Planning in Costa-Rica”, cited in C. S. Stokes: -and: W. A. Schutjer, "A Cautionary Note on Public Policies :in Conflicts:. Land-Reform. And Human Fertility in Rural Egypt,. Comparative Politics, vol. 16, 1983 p.97.

(4 Conflict between land reform & population policies in Costa Rica)

Access to land, security of land tenure and sustainability are key elements in the gender, land tenure - fertility/mortality interface. Constraints relating to access, tenure security and sustainability impede the improvement of men's and women's productivity and socio-economic status and are in part responsible for shaping household demographic strategies. Women cannot assume responsibility over their reproductive rights until they have economic security. Achieving economic security will in part necessitate innovations in land tenure systems to support and protect the land rights of farm women. In other words, fertility/mortality patterns are unlikely to change unless women farmers are also supported through land tenure, legal and institutional reforms (beyond ownership) as well as changes in the socio-cultural environment. Conversely, gender disparities with regard to land access, security and sustainability are likely to contribute to unintended demographic responses such as high fertility and mortality and migration.

A given demographic situation has an optimal land tenure arrangement and vice versa. In view of the constant changes in demographic and, to a lesser extent, land tenure conditions, there is a need for continuous adjustment between the two (land tenure arrangements and demographic responses). Appropriate policy interventions can help adjust these variables. To this effect, the following issues need to be addressed and researched:

1. There is a need to prepare guidelines for policy responses to the interface between land/tenure, gender and fertility/mortality. While, as mentioned above, the specificity of each case should not be overlooked, a checklist based on the framework outlined above could help design appropriate policy responses to demographic conditions, which can then be tailored to each particular context. The guidelines would address questions such as: How do different types of tenure arrangements affect different types of farm households (male-headed households, female-headed households, etc.) and what are the implications for agricultural and population policies? What type of tenure arrangements is optimal for different types of family households and different size households, to ensure sustainable household production? For instance, what type of tenure arrangements would assist large, medium and small female-headed households?

2. Political and economic liberalization, their effects on agricultural production and impact on tenure systems need to be investigated along with the demographic responses they are likely to trigger.

3. The need to introduce institutional mechanisms to provide security of tenure to men and women farmers merits some attention. The greater the intensification of land use, the more institutional arrangements may be needed to ensure security of tenure for men and women farmers.

4. Ways in which land tenure innovations can help to support women's access to land and security of tenure, thereby expanding their choices so that they are in a better position to manage their fertility need to be further explored. This is likely to necessitate legal, institutional and socio-cultural supportive measures to assist in the practical implementation and enforcement of such innovations.

5. The gender differentials of the intra-household division of labour and land utilisation strategies need to be researched along with their impact on the ability of farm households to respond to demographic change.

6. Finally, it may be worth re-examining whether land ownership by women is as critical a gender issue as has widely been assumed. In other words, are there other aspects of security of tenure as important, or possibly more important, than ownership, and if so, how can these be addressed? How feasible a policy goal is land ownership for women in developing countries, given the complex legal and socio-cultural constraints involved? How can other aspects of women's security of tenure be improved?


1. Arthur DeVany and Nicholas Sanchez, "Land Tenure Structures and Fertility in Mexico," in Schutjer, Stokes and Cornwell, "Relationships Among Land, Tenancy and Fertility: A Study of Philippine Barrios," 1981, p.85.

2 FAO, A fairer Future for Rural Women, 1995.

3. FAO, The Legal Status of Rural Women in Nineteen Latin American Countries, 1994, p. 44.

4. Susan Bullock, Women and Work. Women and World Development Series, London: Zed Publications. 1993, p. 45.

5. FAO/UNFPA, "Case Study on Population, Status of Women in Rural Development in Phamong District. Lesotho,' in Koran Roca, Women in Agricultural Development, Paper No. S: Women and Population in Agricultural and Rural Development in Sub-Saharan Africa, FAO, 1991, p. 10.

6. Govind Kelkar, Violence Against Women in India Perspectives and Strategies, Bangkok, Asian Institute of Technology 1992, Gender Studies Occasional Paper 1, p. 14

7. FAO, Women, Agriculture and Rural Development: A Synthesis Report of the Near East Region, prepared for the Fourth World Conference on Women and the Regional Plan of Action for Women in Agriculture in the Near East, 1995, p. 19.

8. C. S. Stokes and W. A. Shutjer, "A Cautionary Note on Public Policies in Conflict:-Land Reform and Human Fertility in Upper Egypt,. Comparative Politics, vol. 16, No. 1, 1983, p. 98.

9. Rudolf Andorka, Population and Socio-Economic Chance in Peasant Societies: The Historical Record of Hungary: 1700 to the Present, FAO, 1978, p. 31.

10. W. A. Shutjer, C. S. Stokes and Gretchen Cornwell, "Relationships Among Land, Tenancy and Fertility: A Study of Philippine Barrios,. 1981, p. 95.

11. Lars-Erik 8irgegard, "Natural Resource Tenure: A Review of Issues and Experiences with Emphasis on Sub-Saharan Africa,. Rural Development Studies. No. 31, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, International Rural Development Centre, Uppsala, 1993, cited in Patricia Parera, Rural Women's Access to Land,- IFAD Working Paper, June 1994, p.1-6.

12. ibid.

13. Parera, 1994, op. cit.. p.1-3.

14. "Rural Women of Latin America and the Caribbean," FAO, 1993, p. 19.

15. FAO, Most farmers in India are Women, June 1991, p. 16.

16. Stokes and Schutjer, 1983, op. cit. p. 98.

17. Nafis Sadik, The State of the Worlds Population 1990, p. 9, cited in Zoran Roca, 1991, op cit., p. 10

18. Roca, FAO, 1991, op. cit p. 10.

19. FAO, Women, Agriculture and Rural Development: A Svnthesis Report of the Africa Region, prepared for the Fourth World Conference on Women, 1995, p. 23.

20. World Bank, Raising the Productivity of Women Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, Discussion Paper #230. 1994.

21. All examples are from Katrine A. Saito and Daphne Spurling, Developing Agricultural Extension for Women Farmers, World Bank Discussion Paper, No. 156, 1992, p. 15.

22. FAO, Women. Agriculture and Rural Development: A Synthesis Report of the Africa Region, 1995, op. cit.. p. 24.

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