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Supporting rural women’s land rights

In many parts of the world, full participation in society – including the ability to earn an income – is still dependent on owning (or having the rights to) land. Yet in many of these places, discrimination against women’s rights to property and tenure remains the norm – and the existing policies and legal frameworks in these regions often provide little recourse for women to realize these rights. With few paths to land ownership, many women in these areas are effectively excluded from key decision-making processes.

For over four decades, IFAD has worked consistently to promote rural women’s legal rights. Our work takes various forms, from helping women obtain basic government-issued identification to actively increasing their land tenure. We also work at the household and community level to transform gender norms around women’s use and control of land through approaches such as household methodologies (HHM).

We’ve seen the benefits that come from enabling women to take control of their land rights, from sustainable management of natural resources, to expansion of women’s business activities, to better health and nutrition, to women’s increased participation in local and regional governance.

The barriers to full land rights

In some countries, the challenges women face are linked to long-standing norms or are the result of gender-discriminatory legal frameworks. For example, outdated legislation may not reflect women’s full rights to land. This can take many forms, including outright blocking women from purchasing property, failing to recognize the rights granted to a de facto union (a couple living together without a formally registered partnership or marriage), or failing to properly prioritize women in the receipt of an inheritance (in regions where land is typically passed down among male family members).

However, while the recognition and realization of women’s land rights has often faced challenges, there have recently been some encouraging signs of progress. The 2018 UNDROP declaration, for example, urges states to provide legal recognition for land rights, including customary land rights (i.e., those conferred without a formal agreement). Importantly, UNDROP encourages eliminating all forms of discrimination against women working in rural areas in any capacity, including low-income rural women.

IFAD has long supported women in realizing their rights to access and own land. In Bangladesh, for instance, the IFAD-supported CDSP project worked closely with authorities to register land titles to married couples in both the wife’s and husband’s names, with equal ownership shares – and with the woman’s name listed first. This ensures that the land will belong entirely to her in the event she is widowed, divorced, or abandoned.

The importance of tenure security

In many cases, low-income rural people struggle not only with limited land rights, but with weak land tenure: the ability to control and manage land. This means that even if some rural women have access to land, they may still lack the ability to use it or make long-term decisions about it.

Tenure security is essential for small-scale farmers. Such stability not only confers the peace of mind that they will be able to use the land without interference, it brings a host of other benefits too. It encourages farmers to invest in their land and agricultural production and enables them to reap the benefits of those investments. With proper legal documentation – including land titles, legal rights and available safety nets – comes higher earnings, and therefore more prosperous households and communities. This increased prosperity, in turn, opens up additional avenues such as access to credit. Furthermore, tenure security contributes directly to social stability; indeed, situations of tenure insecurity often contribute to conflict.

We have recently seen real progress in rural women’s tenure security through the use of HHM. The practice of engaging all household members – women and men – in envisioning a common future consistently brings about positive changes in women’s livelihoods and well-being. In an IFAD-supported project in Sierra Leone, for example, women have increased their control of land-based productive activities – resulting in higher incomes and in more spending devoted to their children’s welfare (e.g., school fees).

Towards achieving the SDGs via realizing women’s land rights

Securing women’s land rights does more than just make them more prosperous. It’s also linked to the greater well-being of their families, especially their children. Recent studies show, for example, that women tend to invest more of their earnings than men into the well-being of their families, especially in areas such as child health, nutrition and education.

Investing in women’s equal access to land and assets, then, is a direct investment in our future – as well as a crucial step towards both achieving gender equality (SDG 5) and ending hunger (SDG 2). The former goal, in particular, is fundamental to accelerating progress across the entirety of the 2030 Agenda. At IFAD, we will continue working towards these goals, in concert with our local and regional development partners – and we call upon all public and private stakeholders for their support in this endeavor.