THE BLOG

Land Rights: One Key to Women's Economic Empowerment

04/13/2015 02:32 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015

Women make up over half the world's population, and yet represent a staggering 70 percent of the world's poor. According to United Nations Women, known as UN Women, the majority of the 1.5 billion people living on less than $1 per day are women.

Not surprisingly, currently there is no country in the world where women earn the same as men for the same job. In a majority of nations, women's wages represent between 70 and 90 per cent of men's, with even lower ratios in some Asian and Latin American countries. In the U.S., women still make less money for doing the same job as men, with pay equity not expected until 2058.

How do we combat these dismal trends? How do we empower women financially?

One solution would be to pay more attention to women's ability to own land. While some women take such rights for granted, they are elusive for millions, perhaps even billions, of the world's women.

UN Women reports that just one percent of the world's women own land. Some other estimates suggest only two percent of the world's women own land, though such low figures continue to be debated because of the complexities of how land is owned in different parts of the world and the overall scarcity of gender disaggregated data.

Nonetheless, there seems little doubt that fewer women than men own land as sole proprietors. For example, across 10 countries in Africa, only 12 percent of women on average report owning land individually. Generally, even when women own land, they continue to suffer discrimination. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) suggests that women generally own smaller parcels of land than those owned by men, and these plots are usually of lesser quality.

Bangladesh provides an illustrative example of the complexities surrounding women's land ownership. No one knows exactly how unequal the distribution of property is in this nation, but some estimates suggest that women own as little as two percent. Women inherit and acquire land differently, depending upon their religion. Even when religious laws permit a woman to inherit property, women often do not claim their rights, but instead leave it for brothers who they incorrectly believe will take care of their economic interests. Land equality legislation has been drafted, but some plans have been met by violent opposition from the religious right.

The situation for women's land rights is moderately better in Uganda, but still far from adequate. Despite their significant role in the country's agricultural sector, only 16 percent of Ugandan women own land. Patriarchal norms in the country have resulted in laws that give primary ownership of land to men, while women enjoy only secondary rights in the form of access to land through their relationships with men. In addition to gender gaps in land ownership in the country, there are also significant gender gaps in the ownership of other forms of property, such as livestock, that further impede a woman's ability to generate an income.

Despite not owning as much land as men, women certainly spend enough time working on it. Women account for nearly half of the world's smallholder farmers in low- and middle-income countries, but do not have recognized rights to the land they work. Most women access land through their husbands or sons, plant in areas where property is communal, or work as day laborers in large collectives.

But why is owning land important? Isn't it just sufficient to be able to work the land?

When women own land, we are better off. In 2005, after conducting case studies in Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Ghana and the Lao People's Democratic Republic, the World Bank concluded that having a protected right to land can increase women's access to food, water and safety. Equal rights to land can also help women build and generate wealth. Property rights are especially important if land can be used to grow food that can generate an income. In addition, according to the same World Bank study, property rights "empower women in their negotiations with other household members, and with the community and society at large."

Women who own land are less vulnerable to violence and the transmission of HIV/AIDS. Research from one community in India found that 49 percent of women who did not own any property reported physical violence, compared with only seven percent of women who did own property. The Global Coalition on Women and AIDS has stated that research suggests "women who have secure access to, ownership and control over land and other assets are better able to avoid relationships that threaten them with HIV, and to manage the impact of AIDS."

Owning land also helps women to provide for their families. Studies, including one focused on Nepal, have shown that when women own land, they increase their spending on food, housing and other goods and their children's health improves. Research in Latin America indicates that women's ownership of property correlates with improved educational outcomes for their children. When women own land, not only do they purchase more food, but they also produce more food. FAO estimated that if women had the same access to land as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20 percent to 30 percent and lift 100 to 150 million people out of hunger.

The good news is that laws around the world appear to be moving in the right direction for women's land rights. According to UN Women, at least 115 countries specifically recognize women's property rights on equal terms with men. But enacting laws granting equality is insufficient if these laws are not enforced. In almost all nations, there needs to be greater awareness of progressive laws. In countries that recognize women's property rights, according to UN Women, land boards and other community-level organizations must be informed about these laws and trained to adjudicate accordingly. It is also vital that these entities include women in decision-making roles.

Although women's equal rights to land ownership are essential to our quest for economic empowerment, these rights are often overlooked. Next time we walk by a plot of land, a home or building, or even livestock, let's take a minute to think about who owns it. Then let's consider the power of this fact and its implications for women's lives.