Five years ago, Sushmita Pallam worked in the fields alongside her husband in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The work was seasonal, the fields were not theirs, and the rice gruel they could afford gave her stomach infections.
“Even on days when I was sick, I used to go to work to feed my family,” she remembers, but it was never enough. She came home to her hungry children and husband’s abuse, and fell asleep dreaming of festivals with good rice.
But today, at age 30, Sushmita sends her children to school. She serves milk, meat, and the best rice at her table. And she stands beside a husband who no longer beats her.
“After 10 long years of humiliation and disrespect, I have attained a new status in my family and in the village,” she says. “It is the reason for my pride and confidence.”
The difference? A small piece of land—not quite an acre—staked out in Sushmita’s name.
Today, while women make up over half the world’s population and produce over half its food, they own less than 2% of its land. While development experts recommend agriculture as one of the fastest advancements out of poverty for Africa, women in many countries like Cameroon, Burkina Faso, and Zimbabwe rarely control the profits from their crops, though they make up 80% of the farmers. Discriminatory inheritance practices prevent daughters from receiving their share of family land across Central and South Asia, and allow the newly widowed in southern Africa to be removed from their property, bereft of both husband and home. Without the economic security and decision-making power of property tenure, women are marginalized, leaving them vulnerable to violence, malnutrition, and discrimination.
But around the world, women’s land rights advocates are taking action at both the policy and grassroots level. Backed by international human rights principles, they assert women’s equal right to land, property, housing, and inheritance. Recent legislation in Uganda gives women secure tenure over family lands, and the Moroccan civil code now authorizes joint property ownership within marriage. In Namibia, the Communal Land Reform Act of 2002 guaranteed that district land management includes women. In Brazil, the city of São Paulo recognized women’s right to shelter, giving them priority for public housing in 2004.
Still, despite these signs of progress, the continuing challenge lies in education, as new policies are easier to enact than enforce. Women are often unaware of their rights, local customs contradict the letter of the law, and attitudes are slow to change. Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have adopted gender amendments to their property laws, for example, but traditional practices still limit women’s land ownership.
But the stakes for change are high. Research repeatedly demonstrates that when women gain control over land, they also gain control over their circumstances. Property rights can enable female farmers to produce better crops, widows to avoid eviction, girls to escape domestic violence and HIV-stigma, and women worldwide to devote more resources to the well-being of their family and ultimately their society.
“If we’re going to address poverty and hunger, we have to talk about women’s land rights,” said Renee Giovarelli, a women’s property rights lawyer with the Rural Development Institute (RDI) in Seattle. “Women who have access to land spend the income from that on their children, on nutrition, and on education. We have to think in terms of making sure women have secure rights to the land.”
Today, groups like RDI are launching new initiatives to not only increase awareness about the importance of land, but also place that land directly in women’s hands. Leading organizations from the Clinton Global Initiative to major foundations are heralding secure property rights for women as the next major key to development and growth.
“This whole movement is in the same place that microfinance was in about 20 years ago,” said Radha Friedman, RDI communications director. The idea of microfinance emerged in Bangladesh under the vision of Muhammad Yunus as a way to provide very small loans to women and spur entrepreneurship.
“It’s because people took a look at what an incredible and transformative difference it could make in the lives of women and their families that it rose to the household concept it is today,” Freidman explained. “We see that same kind of potential for women’s land rights.”
That potential is growing. On October 15, 2009, the International Day for Rural Women, RDI announced the launch of the Global Center for Women’s Land Rights. It is the first attempt to bring together women working on property rights, aggregating their resources and research while providing space to share strategies and solutions. Major donors, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Omidyar Network, and the Nike Foundation, have committed their support.
“Girls are the farmers of the future. Give her land rights, and other critical things fall in place,” says Maria Eitel, president of the Nike Foundation, which made the first funding grant.
According to Giovarelli, who directs the new center, this support marks a major turning point for the movement. Foundations have been reluctant to fund land rights research in the past, as the work on the ground is laborious. Legal advocates and researchers travel from house to house in rural areas, where customs and knowledge about property rights vary dramatically.
“It’s difficult to know what women’s needs are without asking them directly, and that requires lots of time and money,” she said.
Nike is now backing a three-month feasibility study for a project in West Bengal that would direct land rights specifically toward girls. If approved, RDI will work with the Indian government to encourage families without sons to provide land to their daughters as dowries, rather than more traditional resources to the husband’s family. This would empower women with an economic asset from the beginning of their marriage.
The new program would build on an existing partnership with several Indian states to secure land rights for the rural poor by helping them purchase small areas of land, called “micro-plots.” Since 2004 in Andhra Pradesh alone, 5,303 women have successfully managed 4,539 acres to start small farms, build homes, increase their incomes, and improve the health and well-being of their families.
Despite these promising innovations, the land rights movement faces a challenging knowledge deficit. Current, accurate information about land legislation and local customary law is difficult to track down, and clear career paths don’t exist for those who want to get involved. To address these problems, the Global Center for Women’s Land Rights will offer training and fellowships to qualified professionals.
Finally, aiming to bridge the distance between advocates working alone in academia and small villages, the center will host an online library. By gathering global property laws and practices and translating them into multiple languages, the community will then have access to their collective work and experience.
Leonida Odongo expects the e-library to become a valuable tool for her organization, Ebony Youth and Orphans Support Initiative, which holds workshops on inheritance rights for widows in rural Kenya.
“It would be a good opportunity to have reference materials from around the world, to get to know what is working where, and pick the best practices and replicate them!”
RDI plans to launch the e-library in the next year, but it is an enormous undertaking.
“We’re talking about gathering laws on women’s property rights from every country in the world,” Giovarelli said. “What we’re hoping is that someone from the Uganda Land Alliance, for example, could go to the e-library and ask, ‘How have you effectively dealt with the issue of polygamy and women’s land rights?’ Then other people who may have done something successful in their community could write in and say, okay, we tried this and it worked, and here’s what didn’t work.”
In Uganda, women account for approximately three out of four agricultural workers, but they control a mere fraction of the land, according to a 2008 report by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW). Even though the Ugandan constitution gives all citizens the right to own property, women rarely claim land of their own, instead farming the fields of their fathers, husbands, or brothers.
Krista Jacobs, an ICRW economist specializing in land rights, attributes this inequity largely to Uganda’s dual legal system, which upholds both government and customary laws about land. Since formal courts are expensive and far away, and customary laws are rarely written down, a woman’s right to land is often ambiguous, arbitrary, or simply unknown.
“Lack of knowledge about rights and the law is pervasive at every level, all the way from women and men in the village to local government officials, traditional leaders, and even judges and lawyers in the formal legal system,” said Jacobs, who is working with the Uganda Land Alliance (ULA) to change that. “While on the one hand, you have this incredible vacuum of knowledge, you also have a great opportunity.”
Together, ICRW and the ULA have developed a model to fill that vacuum. The program offers basic training in property law and land rights to respected women in their communities, equipping them with the skills and resources to advise others. These paralegals now form a valuable network across Uganda, acting as both educators and legal advocates in rural areas that otherwise would have none. Now, if a woman’s husband dies and she faces eviction, she can turn to a local paralegal for help.
Jane Nabunnya is one of those paralegals. Since 2001, the 43-year-old mother of two has served the Luwero district in Central Uganda as a passionate volunteer.
“I introduce myself in churches, in schools, in the marketplace. They know me very, very well!”
Recently, a widow contacted her, alarmed that her neighbors had kicked her out of her house and blocked the road leading to it. According to formal Ugandan law, a widow has a right to her deceased husband’s property.
Nabunnya agreed to help the widow. Together, they approached the town council of Wobulenzi, a parish in Luwero, and explained the situation. Elected to the council herself in 2002, Nabunnya has become one of the region’s most respected and influential paralegals. They left with a letter from the town engineer instructing the widow’s neighbors to clear five feet on either side of the road to her house.
“I explained to them that I was trained by the Uganda Land Alliance, and gave them copies of the letter. They all agreed to unblock the road, and it was successful.”
Nabunnya estimates that she has helped over 3,000 women, both through the courts and educational workshops. Her greatest challenge, however, is transportation.
“I am only one paralegal, and it is a very big area. We have five parishes, which includes 28 villages,” she said. “Sometimes a client will call my house and say, ‘I have a problem, can you come?’ So I hire a motorcycle, or go on foot. But often, it is far—very, very far.” A motorcycle of her own would help Nabunnya to reach women facing eviction much faster.
For Odongo, witnessing land empower women in Kenya is what gives her work meaning. Like Nabunnya, she offers paralegal advice on property rights to women in her community, many of whom have been forcibly evicted from their property after losing their husbands to HIV/AIDS. These widows and their children, often illiterate and HIV-positive themselves, face strong stigmatization and poverty. Fighting for their land under Kenyan law can restore not only their home but also their sense of power.
“What motivates me is the ability to inspire women to take charge of their own lives,” Odongo says.
“Hearing a widow say, ‘Since I was born, I have never felt so capable of striving to change my situation’ is so great. It feels good to have women change from apathy to capability.”
But not every woman can take charge of her life by holding onto a home she’s already built or claiming a share of the land her family owns. For some women, taking charge means staking an entirely new claim on land she didn’t know she could afford.
Sushmita Pallam first heard about micro-plots in 2004 at a women’s group meeting in her village of Alaganipadu. That year, RDI had partnered with Indira Kranthi Patham, a network of village self-help organizations like Sushmita’s, to help rural women in Andhra Pradesh purchase land for the first time by negotiating market rates with local sellers.
Although her husband would often drag her out of these meetings, Sushmita was excited by the idea.
“I and other landless women in my village applied collectively for a loan to buy a plot of land,” she recalls. “With the help of our village organization, we negotiated with the sellers and split the land parcels among ourselves.”
On her nine-tenths of an acre, Sushmita grew two crops and purchased two buffalo. She repaid her loan of Rs. 10,000, or $214 USD, in only 10 installments, and has been able to save Rs. 7000 each year since. With her profits, Sushmita sent her children to government schools, rebuilt her small house to accommodate her extended family, and purchased modern appliances, including a cell phone and bicycle.
But, she says, these things pale in comparison to the respect she has earned from her family and neighbors. Now, she is confident in her ability to not only purchase more land, but help others do so as well.
“I draw strength from the land I own!” Sushmita said. “This piece of land has turned the tide. From a life of poverty and social disrespect, my land has earned me and my family a life of dignity and opportunity.”
This confidence, says Giovarelli, is at the heart of empowering women.
“Not only do land rights help women to reduce poverty, HIV/AIDS rates, and domestic violence, but they give women a voice and a stake in their community. When women have land, they feel much more powerful.”