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The Generation and Use of Information on Women's Land Rights in the Design of Sustainable Agriculture Projects

by Agnes R. Quisumbing*


It is probably unimaginable for any study on agriculture to omit questions about land, one of the most important inputs into agricultural production. Despite this, and despite our growing recognition of women's roles as agricultural producers, there is very little information on women's land rights. When I was preparing a survey of the literature on women's land rights a few years ago, I was surprised by the scarcity of gender-disaggregated data on land. Our solution was to collect the data ourselves!

But this experience illustrates how policymakers and researchers may miss a valuable opportunity to formulate policies which benefit women as agricultural producers and managers of natural resources. The absence of gender-disaggregated data on land rights has often been used as an excuse NOT to formulate gender specific interventions. An often-mentioned excuse is: we don't know enough about women's land rights.

Distinguished participants, I will use this panel discussion to illustrate how obtaining information on women's land rights can create additional opportunities for policy interventions which may have far-reaching effects. Agricultural research centers, donors, and policymakers alike have a role to play in generating and using this information.

Women's Land Rights and Rights to Trees and Common-Property Resources

Discussions of land rights typically focus on statutory or legal rights of ownership. However, focusing on statutory legal rights to land often neglects women's rights because the former are usually rights held by a household, or by the male household head, whereas there may be significant differences in rights to land and other natural resources based on gender, age, and other intrahousehold characteristics. In many areas governed by customary law, land titles do not exist. Moreover, women may derive rights to land on the basis of customary law. It may thus be necessary to move beyond standard legalistic interpretations of property rights, to recognize a broad spectrum of customary rights and practices, the different bundles of rights that men and women may have to use and manage resources, and how these are negotiated and change over time. Following the bundles of rights identified by Schlager and Ostrom (1992), it is particularly useful to look at which users have rights of access, withdrawal, exclusion, management, and alienation, and for what uses. Schlager and Ostrom (1992) propose a useful classification of these bundles of rights in a hierarchy ranging from limited, short-term rights to extensive, long-term rights to the benefit stream, as follows:

Access and withdrawal are considered use rights, while management, exclusion, and alienation are rights of control over the resource. "Ownership" is often conceived of as holding the full bundle of rights. From this listing of the bundle of rights, it is already apparent that land rights (and rights to other natural resources) are a lot more complex than simple ownership.

Aside from being the most important productive input into agricultural production, land rights are often women's entry point for accessing other productive services: credit, irrigation water, and often, produce from trees. However, informal and customary means of access to water and tree products are equally important for women. For example, when traditional means of access to water by formal ownership and labor contribution are blocked, women resort to informal means of access (such as appealing to male relatives, irrigation officials, or simply taking water). Likewise, tree tenure is characterized by nested and overlapping rights, which are the products of social and ecological diversity between various groups of people and resources.

It is important for policymakers to understand the mechanisms by which women obtain access to land. In much of Sub-Saharan Africa, women obtain access to land usually through a male relative, whether husband, father, or brother. These rights may not be protected in the case of death or divorce, although such customary rights are changing. In the patriarchal societies of South Asia, women have limited rights to land. Inheritance rights are often given up in favor of brothers, in return for support in times of difficulty. However, women may have rights to own and inherit land, as in the bilateral societies of Southeast Asia and the Andes. Unfortunately, there are gaps in the data and our understanding of men's and women's rights to land and other natural resources. These reflect existing gaps in the data on farming, and hence on who are the users of the various natural resources.

New Evidence from IFPRI Studies

As part of a multi-country study on gender and intrahousehold issues, IFPRI has been conducting field surveys in four high-concentration studies. These studies have included a qualitative study, based on participatory methods, used to inform the design of a quantitative household survey. Findings from these studies are summarized below:

The Use and Generation of New Information

Many policymakers are now convinced that policy and legal reforms to strengthen women's access to land are an essential ingredient for their empowerment. However, the effectiveness of such reforms will depend on an understanding of women's and men's existing rights to land, and how these rights may affect access to other natural resources. This is where the use and generation of new information on women's land rights will be crucial.

The use of new information

Accurate and appropriate gender-disaggregated information on women's property rights can be used to design sustainable agriculture projects through the following mechanisms:

The generation of new information

Researchers are often viewed as the source of new information to influence policymakers. Generating new information on women's land rights may involve new methodologies which would require researchers of various disciplines to work more closely together. For example, our work at IFPRI suggests that the combination of both qualitative and quantitative survey techniques has enriched our understanding of women's land rights.

We must not forget, however, that information on assets and rights cannot be separated from who the users are. At the most basic level, are there good data on who are the farmers? Researchers and policymakers also need to understand the various uses of a natural resource. It is often assumed that resource is used for only one thing, e.g. irrigation and land for field crops or forests for firewood, when in fact there are complex overlapping uses (e.g. fallow fields being open for grazing, or water being used for agriculture and domestic uses). Many of the customary rights relate to those "secondary" uses, and those tend to be very neglected by statutory legal rights.

I will end this presentation with a plea to the data generation profession: gender is but one additional variable to include when collecting data on land and other inputs into production. The costs of collecting data on gender are insignificant compared to our increased understanding of women's roles in agriculture. I would encourage researchers to include attention to gender issues more explicitly in the design phase of research, and statisticians to make data on gender more accessible by including it as a key variable in surveys and in the presentation of summary statistics.


Estudillo, J., A. Quisumbing and K. Otsuka. 1999. Gender difference in schooling and land inheritance in rural Philippines. Photocopy.

Quisumbing, A. R. and J. A. Maluccio. 1999. Intrahousehold Allocation and Gender Relations: New Empirical Evidence. International Food Policy Research Institute, September 1999. Photocopy.

Quisumbing, A. R.and K. Otsuka (with S. Suyanto, J.B. Aidoo and E. Payongayong). 1999. Land, Trees, and Women: Evolution of Land Tenure Institutions in Western Ghana and Sumatra. Research report manuscript submitted to the Publications Review Committee, International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC.

Quisumbing, A. R., E. Payongayong, J. B. Aidoo, and K. Otsuka. 1998. Women's land rights in the transition to individualized ownership: Implications for tree resource management in Western Ghana. Mimeo, Washington D.C.: International Food Policy Research Institute.

Schlager, E. and E. Ostrom. 1992. Property-rights regimes and natural resources: A conceptual analysis. Land Economics 68 (3): 249-262.

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