Land technology is moving at warp speed. How will the Biden administration and Samantha Power ensure women benefit?
Today Joe Biden is inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States. The change of administration will bring radical shifts in the United States’ foreign and domestic policy and likely resuscitate international aid, which under the Trump administration suffered budget cut threats and scandals.
Biden has nominated Samantha Power, formerly U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, to head the United States Agency for International Development, and said he would give the agency a seat on the powerful National Security Council.
The nomination of Power, a women’s rights champion, builds on Biden’s commitment to “protect and empower” women around the world. In its efforts, the Biden administration must not forget a critical component of women’s empowerment: the ability to access and use technology generally, and land technology specifically.
The last decade has revolutionized land technology. All over the world, governments, NGOs, and private companies are using drones, GPS, self-sovereign identity and blockchain to help millions of people map, document and defend the rights to their land and homes. These advances make it easier, faster and cheaper for people to document the rights to their most valuable asset, and decrease government corruption by making land administration more transparent.
But these exciting advances suffer a significant shortcoming: they are leaving women behind. Research shows that women lag in both their access to and uptake of land tenure technologies, from cutting edge advances like blockchain and drones to every-day tools like smartphones.
Over the last decade, GPS-enabled mobile phones have transformed land governance by allowing poor communities to map their land without relying on prohibitively expensive government surveyors. And yet, in low and middle income countries women are 8% less likely to own a mobile phone (and 20% less likely to own a smartphone) than men, and 20% less likely to use their phone to access the internet.
Not only do women have poorer access to technology, but lower literacy rates and digital skills, along with less empowerment more generally, mean they can’t use it as effectively. A study of internet users in Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa found that going online was seen as taking a woman’s time away from her family responsibilities, and in some instances male heads of household prohibited women from going online or using social media.
Even when women can access land technologies, gendered design means they are often less equipped to use them. Experts from the United Nations to Silicon Valley have long warned that technology is sexist. Most tech developers are men, and may not design applications with women in mind. Virtual reality headsets are a salient example of this bias: The Economist reports that VR headsets are substantially more likely to make women nauseous because women’s pupils are closer together than the default VR setting, which is calibrated to men.
Technology sexism is not unique to land, but it's particularly pernicious here because secure land rights are so crucial for women’s empowerment. A study in Nepal found that when women owned land they could make decisions about their healthcare needs, major household purchases, and visits to family or relatives. Studies in India, Nicaragua, and Tanzania all found significant links between land ownership and lower domestic violence. Another study found in South African and Ugandan women with secure rights to land were better able to insist that their partner use a condom, thereby mitigating HIV transmission.
Knowing that land rights are critical for empowering and protecting women, how do we design land technologies in a way women can access and use? We can start by learning from a few examples that have gotten it right.
In Rwanda, the government relies on 4,000 Irembo Agents to walk women and men through mobile processes for land registration or land title transfers, helping users overcome access, literacy, and numeracy challenges that they might otherwise face.
In Tanzania, USAID’s Mobile Application for Secure Tenure program insisted that at least half of all community mappers were women and ran village-wide classes to explain Tanzanian land laws, which allow women equal access to land. In Zambia, Medici Land Governance invested in public awareness campaigns on gender inclusivity, prioritized hiring and training women to collect landowner data, and worked with the government to institute flexible payment arrangements that allowed more women to participate.
Innovative technologies are revolutionizing land governance, but if we don’t ensure these technologies are accessible to and benefit women, we will only amplify the inequities women already face in accessing land. The Biden administration has already put women in unprecedented positions of power -- let's make sure the attention to empowering and protecting women extends to land technology too.