They may till its soil for years, they may live on it for decades, they may build a home and feed their families and raise their children on it, but the vast majority of the world's women have no legal right to the land upon which they live and work.
It would be hard to underestimate the transformation in women's lives when they gain the rights to a plot of land, as tenants or as owners.
"This land is like gold and now my children have a future," a woman farmer in India told land rights advocate Tim Hanstad. The woman, named Pranu, had recently purchased the property through a new government program developed in partnership with Hanstad's Landesa (previously known as the Rural Development Institute).
So what was the amount of land that changed Pranu's life and that of her children? Less than an acre.
"A little land can go a long way," says Hanstad, Landesa's president and CEO, and one of the world's most powerful advocates for secure land rights. "She had been a completely landless laborer, making her money from working other peoples' fields when such work was available, which was not always."
The transformation in her life had been extraordinary. "She had gone from making less than $200 a year to now, with this less than an acre of land, to making $800 a year," says Hanstad. "Her family had gone from eating two meals of just rice gruel a day to eating three more full and complete meals that involved vegetables and occasionally meat. Her children were now in the classroom rather than the fields. She now had access to credit. She had increased status and dignity in her community."
According to Hanstad, up to 80 percent of farming in developing countries is done by women, yet women typically own less than 5 percent of the land. The reasons for this are driven by many factors that can be social, cultural, legal, or political.
In traditional societies, daughters typically do not inherit land from their parents, wives do not have shared ownership of their husbands' property and widows must surrender their homes to their husbands' families. Where they do have legal rights, women are often unaware of them or unable to advocate for themselves. Still other barriers to women's land security include outmoded laws and policies, and simple resistance to change.
Turning that around, says Hanstad, requires approaching the problem from all angles at once. "In many settings, progressive policy decisions can create the legal space for advancing women's land rights. But in most settings social barriers that are deep-seated in culture also need to change, and changing those social barriers involve roles for social activists, for community leaders, for parents, for everyone in society."
"For example, passing an inheritance law that allows females equal inheritance rights to males by itself just creates the space to do it. Still, parents have to be aware of it and actually be willing to give land to their daughters; their daughters have to be empowered to assert that right. And those social barriers, especially around the issue of women's land rights, are very difficult and require a lot of work from a lot of activists."
Fortunately, says Hanstad, "there are so many groups and people working below the radar at the local level in very innovative ways that are doing fabulous work on property rights." However, he adds, "You would not be able to find many of these actors, typically, by doing an Internet search."
Many of them, however, are coming to light through a global competition for the best ideas in this field, Property Rights: Identity, Dignity & Opportunity for All. Hanstad is a judge for this search for social innovators whose solutions could be scaled up and replicated to great success. Run by Ashoka's Changemakers and Omidyar Network, the competition received 211 entries from 47 countries. (The three winning solutions are: ENSS/SUTRA (A Family of One's Own), a social movement led by women that advocates for long-term lease rights from the government to promote an alternative, women-centered household structure; Red Tierras, an interactive network that uses technology to connect land rights practitioners from marginalized communities, citizen sector organizations, and government agencies across Latin America to share best practices in land conflict resolution, agrarian reform and sustainable natural resource management; and Terra Nova, which improves the lives of families living in urban slums by peacefully managing the land regularization process, resolving land disputes and enabling residents to purchase title to the land they occupy).
Each of the winners has won a $50,000 prize to invest in their property rights solution, as well as access to a broader network of leaders in the field of property rights.
"One of the reasons I'm just so excited about this competition," says Hanstad, "is because it, I think, will unearth and bring to light many of these very, very innovative actors and people who have been working with their heads down for years, if not decades, and allow us all to learn from them, and allow their very dedicated and effective work to be known to policy makers in their country and other larger actors that can partner with them and help them scale."
The winners will each receive a cash prize of $50,000 to expand their work and reach many more lives. The results, already demonstrated through empirical research, in the lives of women when they have secure rights to land include: increased income and wealth, increased productivity, heightened social status, reduced domestic violence, improved family nutrition, advanced children's education, and access to loans and credit.
Whether through inheritance, purchase, lease or grant, the significant social and economic gains of having rights to land extend far beyond each individual woman. Whole families and communities benefit. And while these benefits are indisputable, the greatest value of all may be the dignity bestowed by one small plot of land.
"Property rights bolster peoples' dignity," says Hanstad, "by giving them hope, giving them purpose, by giving them status within their community and within their family."