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3.1 Gender differences in land tenure should be recognized if land objectives, such as increasing land productivity, providing affordable housing, or promoting sustainable resource management, are to be met. There is a need for land tenure policy frameworks that explicitly address gender inclusive access to land. Without specific attention to gender inclusiveness, important segments of society may be excluded from the benefits of land administration, management, and development schemes. This is underscored by the findings of the Women’s Summit4 that, in most of today’s societies, there are great gender inequities in access to land, housing and basic infrastructure. Finally, but not least of all, equitable access to land is a human rights issue and, as the UN Economic and Social Council Commission on the Status of Women states, “land rights discrimination is a violation of human rights.”5

3.2 In many countries, there is still a lack of adequate provisions for women to hold land rights independently of their husbands or male relatives. Statutory law often does not provide for women’s independent rights and when such legislation does exist, mechanisms to enforce it are often absent. In traditional or “customary” societies, women’s direct access to land through purchase or inheritance is often limited, yet they may have greater management and use rights than men. Since women are frequently the major household food producers, there are usually customary provisions for indirect access to land in terms of use rights acquired through kinship relationships and their status as wives, mothers, sisters, or daughters. (See Figure 1.)

FIGURE 1: Institutions that affect women’s access to land rights

3.3 These use rights, however, may not grant enough security for women and other dependants when traditional family structures dissolve. Through labour mobility, divorce, separation, or death, an increasing number of women are becoming the heads of households. They are thus making many of the day-to-day decisions affecting shelter, food production, and household economics. Yet only a small proportion of these women hold secure land rights. Similarly, there are societies where access to land stems from the female line, and in this case male partners and children may be disadvantaged as societies change.

3.4 Urbanisation is a major factor in such societal changes. The Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) noted that people and investments are being attracted to cities and this trend is expected to accelerate in the future. Friedmann6 estimates that about 30-40 percent of urban populations are female-maintained, i.e., responsible for food and other household matters. That number can be expected to be larger in many developing countries where more people may comprise a household and thus be the responsibility of women. On the other hand, there are increasing numbers of men and children who are homeless. Such gender-related changes in household and community maintenance need to be addressed in housing and economic development projects which target groups, for example, through special credit or rental arrangements.

3.5 Migration to urban centres has resulted in a rapid rise in the number of rural families that have women as the heads of households. Many of these women are those with the least social power (i.e., single parents, widows, divorcees, wives of migrant workers, the aged and the infirm). 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 or even national levels. Too often, women are left holding whatever rights they have at the will of male relatives. Single, divorced or widowed women can end up dependent on the goodwill of distant family members.

3.6 At the same time female-headed households are faced with the responsibility for food production for growing populations. Even in male-headed households, women often have prime responsibility for food production while men commonly concentrate on cash crops. Rural women in particular are responsible for half the world’s food production and produce between 60 and 80 percent of the food in most developing countries. In sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, women produce up to 80 percent of basic foodstuffs. In Asia, between 50 and 90 percent of the work in the rice fields is done by women. After the harvest, rural women in developing countries are almost entirely responsible for storage, handling, stocking, marketing and processing.

3.7 Making access to land more equitable does not mean addressing only the quantity of rights allocated. To make use of the rights and opportunities, access to land must also be enforceable or secure (for example, against seizure by force or by law). Equitable access to land must also be effective, i.e., by including equitable access to transportation, credit, markets, etc. The support of legal, customary and family institutions are fundamental if more effective access to land is to be improved for men and women.

3.8 To create gender equity, whether on the basis of human rights or for reasons of economic efficiency, then the principal challenges for land administration are:

This is important given that land is the main source of income and food security for the majority of rural households in many countries.

3.9 These are not easy challenges because land tenure arrangements are dynamic and can vary greatly within and among countries. There may not even be any clear consensus, nationally or regionally, on what land policy goals are or should be. Despite these limitations, land administrators need to understand how land reform, land management and land development schemes may impact on access to land from a gender perspective.

3.10 There is increasing evidence that outcomes of land reform and land administration activities have different implications for men and women.7 Traditionally, the involvement of men as the de jure heads of households as primary beneficiaries in such programmes was viewed as sufficient to ensure that other household members would equally enjoy the benefits of the projects as dependents. Today, it is increasingly being recognized that such assumptions cannot be made.

3.11 With significant demographic shifts in rural and urban areas, development organisations and professionals have had to seek new strategies to tackle gender issues. In the land sector, this may mean giving women and men, directly or through co-ownership, greater security of tenure and better access to land resources. Greater security of rights to land increases the holder’s ability to make decisions regarding appropriate economic strategies that may include diversification from subsistence farming. Security of tenure is a key to enabling individuals and households to participate effectively in economic development.

3.12 The timeliness of this new vision is underscored by some experience from the past. As Rocheleau and Edmunds (1997)8 comment: “Women who enjoy access to a variety of tree, forest and rangeland resources across the rural landscape may find their access restricted after formal land titling or land tenure reforms have invested greater powers of exclusion in land owners, whether male or female. Even where formal title is given jointly to a husband and wife, a woman may lose decision-making authority over her former domains on and off farm as the household ‘heads’ take on the full and exclusive responsibility for the management of household land and all the plants and animals upon it.”

3.13 Another example is given by Lastarria-Cornhiel (1997)9: “Among the Mandinka ... of Gambia both common and individual property rights are recognized: family-cleared land designated maruo collectively farmed by the family but under the control of the male household head; and individually cleared land designated kamanyango which if cleared by a woman gives her access to land with partial autonomy, controlling the profits and able to transfer land to daughters. In the late 1940s and early 1950s women sought to establish kamanyango rights of new rice lands by clearing former mangrove swamps. In 1984, the Jahaly Pacharr irrigation project, designed to increase productivity of the rice paddies by enabling year-round cultivation, recognizing that women were the key farmers on this land, sought to title the land to women. Household heads (generally male) registered the land in women’s names but then designated it as maruo land.”

3.14 The “Toolkit on Gender in Agriculture”10 prepared by the World Bank includes the following observation: “Land title and tenure tend to be vested in men, either by legal condition or by sociocultural norms. Land reform and resettlement have tended to reinforce this bias against tenure for women. Land shortage is common among women. Compared to men, women farm smaller and more dispersed plots and are less likely to hold title, secure tenure, or the same rights to use, improve or dispose of land.”

3.15 Statistical information is far from complete and, where it exists, lack of uniformity makes comparison difficult. For example, in some cases the definition of “ownership” does not take into account “co-ownership”. Some researchers11 put land ownership by women at less than 10 percent world-wide. Others argue that women may actually have more direct use and management of land than men through lesser rights than ownership. However, the discrepancy between decision-making powers and labour input is compelling in many situations.

3.16 As the percentage of population living in households that can be considered de facto or de jure female-headed household is on the rise,12 there is a need to re-examine how property rights are allocated and secured. There is also a need to better understand the complex relationships between use, control and ownership of land resources. A simple certificate of title could certainly not reflect the diversity of land rights found in many cultures.

3.17 The difficulties of protecting and enhancing access to land is illustrated by Box 1 and the following paragraphs.



Causes of poverty among rural women and their families:13

  • women’s lack of access and control over productive resources and services

  • serious underemployment of rural women

  • persistent inequalities between men and women regarding employment opportunities and compensation

  • exclusion of women and the poor from decision- and policy-making

  • legal environments that favour men’s rights over women’s rights

New pressures affecting traditional arrangements:

  • changing socio-economic conditions, such as increased population, new types of employment and the growing cash economies

  • urban and peri-urban migration

  • incorporation and/or replacement of traditional tribal and religious institutions by national and local government structures

  • changes in inheritance patterns, particularly with increased education and outside employment opportunities

  • the changing household structure through death, disability, divorce, and abandonment

Constraints to secure acceptable urban housing:14

  • obtaining title that enables formal land registration (and transactions) is unmanageable for the poor, due to cost and time requirements

  • dealing with bureaucracy and providing documentation and information when going through official channels is also time-consuming and requires education

  • developing land use regulations that negatively affect income generating activities and safety for those working from their houses

3.18 Documenting customary tenure. There is increasing interest in several African countries in documenting customary rights (e.g., Uganda’s Land Act of 1998). The arguments for registering these certificates of customary tenure are that the processes will:

3.19 Despite the merits or limitations of the processes, there could be significant impacts on some land rights. A major difficulty is the fact that such documentation can effectively freeze customary rules that are in place at the time. No account is made, for example, of such future rights as the right of a child to return home and receive a parcel of family land after a divorce. Limited rights such as the right to pick fruit or gather wood on another’s property may be eliminated by the documentation. And then there is the question of whose name(s) the certificates or registers will record. For example, will the name be the de facto head of household, who may be a woman whose husband works away from home, or the de jure head of household according to customary law? There are limitations with both of these approaches, including the problem of whether the documents have priority over customary law in cases of inheritance when both names are recorded. In this regard, polygamy is a significant complicating factor when issuing land titles. Unregistered marriages, divorces and polygamy can have a major impact on women’s security of tenure.

3.20 Dynamic cultural and religious values. Traditional laws and religious laws often protected women and provided for wives, widows, and female children through other means than, for instance, equal land shares on inheritance. Under Islamic law, for example, daughters may receive half the land that sons receive on the death of their father. This is in effect their dowry to bring to a marriage. The sons on the other hand have the responsibility to provide for unmarried sisters and their mother and in theory require more land. Other cultures have had similar traditional laws.

3.21 Traditional societies and religious based communities are not immune to the influence of social changes around them. Education of women and greater opportunities for employment and self-sufficiency are affecting many traditional communities. Divorce, desertion, and urban migration may also challenge the traditional safety nets. The devastation of HIV/AIDS and war have further fragmented the extended and traditional family arrangements. At the same time, in the midst of obvious need for changes, who has the right to demand that these changes be made or to force another community to adopt its values? This raises ethical dilemmas for the land professional.

3.22 Gender-targeted development projects. International aid organisations have been targeting particular groups such as women and children for special assistance for decades. More recently the protection and enhancement of women’s rights to land have become a focus for some land reform projects. One difficulty is that these projects often enhance the economic value of the land which may change how that land is viewed within the community. For example, part of a community may have used parcels of marginal land to raise personal crops. After a land development project, this marginal land may have access to irrigation and to a new road, thus enhancing its value. Will local authorities allow the original land users to maintain their land rights after the project is over? Experience in housing projects has also shown that making improvements to a house may lead to “expropriation” of rights to the house by more powerful members of the community.

3.23 The intention of this discussion is not to discourage gender-related projects and programmes. Instead, it is to demonstrate that making changes does not always result in the benefits originally intended.15 The situation is complex and requires looking at the existing constraints at the macro-level (legislation and policies), institutional arrangements (mechanisms and procedures for land administration), and local dynamics (prevalent social organizations and related factors in social beliefs, rules, and customary practices).

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