Supporting women’s ability to own, manage and control land will help accelerate gender equality globally
It is depressing, discouraging, infuriating – pick your word – to see the scale and scope of abuse and discrimination aimed at women and girls worldwide.
A few statistics stand out: 1 in three women will experience gender-based violence during their lives; 72% of the people who are trafficked are women and girls; women are likely to face higher risks and worse impacts from climate change; and 40% of the world’s economies restrict women’s property rights.
There is good news despite this bleak picture. Today, most women are literate. In the US, women are outpacing men when it comes to earning college degrees (though women’s pay still lags). Women are starting and running more businesses worldwide, building stronger economies and asset bases for themselves and their families.
How do we make sure this good news/bad news story continues to trend toward equality?
While there is no one solution to the web of obstacles women face, practical approaches can push the needle for gender equality and women’s empowerment.
Helping women secure their rights to land and other property is one such solution. Here are three approaches to accelerate gender equality globally by supporting women’s ability to own, manage and control important assets like land.
First, understand what resources women currently control.
Around the world, women are more likely to use common pool resources in rural and indigenous communities. Women and girls gather fuel, water, food, and medicines. Women are overwhelmingly responsible for planting and tending the kitchen gardens that nourish families and feed nations. Finally, women are frequently co-laborers with their husbands and other male family members on plots that are jointly used, but rarely jointly held legally.
But when families grow more cash crops, or when government services are directed to agriculture, conservation, or climate action, men are the dominant beneficiaries; women need targeted support to achieve equality.
To overcome the gendered dynamics of control over resources, policy makers, civil society, and the development community must embrace land tenure and governance that directly relates to women’s contributions to food security, a healthy environment, and a thriving economy.
Next, close remaining gaps in law and practice.
Most of the world’s countries still lack gender-equitable laws regarding land and property ownership. While many countries have gender-neutral laws, this can often result in women’s rights being weakened or extinguished when rights are formalized. Another complication comes from interactions between land laws and family laws. Land in rural areas still frequently changes hands through inheritance or marriage, and women’s rights are still secondary to men’s in practice.
Gaps between law and practice also affect women in the context of acquisitions by powerful actors from outside communities. Land acquisition often perpetuates or deepens inequality, especially through deals for extractives, but injustice can also occur where the purpose is conservation or development.
This demonstrates the need for women to be present where large-scale decisions over natural resources are made. Sustainable land management (and its intended outcomes) requires holistic and transboundary approaches. Yet despite women’s crucial contribution to natural resource management, they are radically underrepresented in land administration bodies, parliaments, and climate action and conservation spaces.
Finally, measure and track progress particularly through the SDGs.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent an unprecedented global commitment to achieve peace and prosperity for people and planet and to “leave no one behind.” Land is a foundational ingredient for achieving these outcomes, including gender equality (Goal 5). Why?
Because the majority of those living in poverty are in rural areas and depend at least partially on land, and poverty affects women disproportionately; because sustainable economic development means ensuring rural employment to manage migration, urbanization, and food security; and because inclusive land management is essential to addressing global challenge of climate change.
The SDGs include three indicators for women’s rights to land. And when women have land rights, other development outcomes result, including education, health, and nutrition. Crucially, land rights contribute to women’s empowerment within the home, which can lead to better, freer choices for women’s employment, reproductive health, and even to less gender-based violence.
Investments to support women in each of these three areas would help move the needle for gender equality. Coordinated efforts in all of them could transform women’s lived realities.
Karol Boudreaux is Chief Program Officer at Landesa, a global land rights organization.