Participation People

Towards sustainable food security

Women and land tenure

Prepared by the Women in Development Service (SDWW)
FAO Women and Population Division

ONE OF THE MOST SERIOUS OBSTACLES to increasing the agricultural productivity and income of rural women is their insecurity of tenure. Land tenure refers to a set of rights which a person or organisation holds in land. Security of tenure is not limited to private ownership but can exist in a variety of forms such as leases on public land or user rights to communal property. If tenure is secure, the holder can reasonably expect to use the land to its best advantage in accordance with the right, reap a timely and fair return and be able to enforce the right against non-holders. Tenure enables the holder to make management decisions on how land-based resources will be used for immediate household needs and long-term sustainable investment.

In order for women farmers, who are responsible for 60-80% of the food production in developing countries, to use land more efficiently and thereby make a greater contribution to food security, they need access to land, management control of land-based resources, and economic incentives that security of tenure provides.

Why women farmers don't have security of tenure

Historically women's access to land was based on status within the family and involved right of use, not ownership. In Asia, the most prevalent barrier to acquiring real property is inheritance laws which favour male inheritance over female. If a woman inherits property, it is managed by her husband. Hindu women formally hold rights in property for life only; at death it reverts back to the male line. In Africa, custom rather than religious practice excludes women from ownership; property is held in a man's name and passed patrilineally with the group. A widows right to remain on the land is not secure. In Latin America, discrimination results more from limited status under the law. Women, for example, may reach majority age at 21, but still be required to be represented by their husbands in all legal capacities.

Land reform, legislative reform and the forces of modernisation have had a mixed effect. Agrarian reform or resettlement programs use the "head of family" concept, usually a male, as the basis of land reallocation. Few have significant numbers of female beneficiaries or even pay attention to gender as a beneficiary category. New legislation on equality for women is more applicable to the urban-employed class than rural persons; agricultural land is even excluded in some new inheritance schemes. Statutory reform of customary law is confusing and open to interpretation; when customary, religious or statutory systems coexist, the law least favourable to women is often selected.

Traditional or customary systems that might have protected a woman's access to land during her lifetime are breaking down under population, economic and environmental pressures. Growing male rural to urban migration is leaving women as de facto heads of household without management authority over land resources. Even under resettlement schemes in irrigated areas, women de facto heads of household rarely benefit.

In some cases, however, women have gained better access to land through land reform, generally where the participation of rural women is a well-defined state policy. In some countries, agrarian reforms replaced the feudal system where women traditionally held a subordinate role in family production. Women's in Thailand, China, Nicaragua, Malaysia and Cuba have helped to overcome existing barriers or to protect women's rights regarding inheritance of land. There are also many instances where women's organisations have fought to gain access to land which they farm collectively.

Effect on food security

Half of the world's resource-poor farmers are women, who also have primary responsibility for food security. Their success in meeting daily household needs depends on how well they manage and supplement a limited and delicately balanced set of resources: cropland, pasture and forest. Without land and secure tenure a woman cannot access credit and membership in agricultural associations, particularly those responsible for processing and marketing. If tenure is secure, a woman can invest in, rather than exploit, the land's productive potential and is more likely to adopt environmentally sustainable farming practices. She can plan and quickly adjust resource allocation decisions under changing climate or economic conditions, and rely on the productive results of her labour.

Control of the product is also an important consideration in examining women's land rights. Security of tenure is often the key to having control over major decisions such as what crop to grow, what techniques to use and the decision as to what to consume and what to sell. Given women's tendency to grow food as opposed to cash crops and to spend income on family food, security of tenure for women must be viewed as a key link in the chain from household food production to national food security.

A way out?

The following measures should be considered by policy makers in addressing constraints on women's access to land:
  1. Comprehensive tenure reform for women that considers marriage, inheritance and contract rights, should be made a priority food security issue.
  2. Legislative and policy initiatives should reflect women's' actual experience and needs; the reform process should be participatory.
  3. Reform should be matched with legal literacy training for men and women, particularly on the relationship between law and rural productivity.
  4. Greater attention should be given to alternative forms of ownership and management, such as co-operatives and self-help groups, including women.
Land tenure legislation promulgated in Eritrea in 1994 reflects a strong policy of gender equality. The right of ownership of all land in Eritrea is the exclusive right of the government. Every Eritrean citizen, whose main source of income is the land, has a lifetime right of usufruct over land with the provision that such a right is neither divisible nor inheritable. Eritreans qualify automatically for land upon attainment of age 18 regardless of sex, religion or marital status; individual holdings are registered and lifetime usufructuary title-deeds issued.

Some development projects have made innovative attempts to give women access to land. A World Bank sericulture project in India made it possible for women in Jammu and Kashmir to obtain joint title to mulberry gardens if they have a no-objection letter from the husband or landowner. In Andhra Pradesh, state land grant schemes promoted women' access to land. In Karnataka, project funds were used to lease land for women's groups.

Similarly, obtaining land titles for female heads of households is a priority in a small farmer service project in Chile. Chile's experience that farmers with secure land tenure more readily accept new technology has led that country to target rural land titling efforts to the most difficult and neediest cases, with rural women explicitly recognised as beneficiaries.



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