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Land is often the most important asset for households and individuals in the developing world, the majority of whom rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. Secure land rights can increase agricultural productivity, reduce food insecurity, slow environmental degradation, and reduce poverty. Improving women’s land rights leads to strong benefits for individuals and communities, but women in the developing world face challenges in securing their land. 

Though land rights have found increasing focus in recent decades, the majority of the world’s population lacks secure rights to the land on which they live and work. Nearly half of the world’s economies limit the ability of women to own property, and 44 countries do not provide men and women with equal inheritance rights. In Africa, women account for 70% of all food production, yet few women have rights to the land on which they depend. As of 2015, only 10 to 20% of landowners in developing countries are women

Secure rights to land are clearly defined, long-term, enforceable, transferable, and both legally and socially legitimate. This often includes formal, legal title and documentation; however, customary systems of land ownership based on historical and communal ties to land account for at least 75% of the land in most African countries.

Women are disadvantaged in both formal and customary systems of land ownership. In the few cases where land is formally titled, ownership is often granted exclusively to male heads-of-households. In customary systems, traditional practices, norms, and power dynamics often exclude women from agency over land, prioritizing male relatives. This leaves women vulnerable to displacement and excluded from household income and decision-making


Challenges to Women’s Land Rights 

Women face legal or social barriers to land rights in more than half of the world. Many countries ostensibly protect women’s equal rights to land in their constitutions and legislation, but marriage, divorce, and inheritance laws contradict these promises by discriminating against women and girls. Even when adequate laws are written, they are often poorly enforced by land administration bodies and courts that are dominated by men. Proper enforcement often fails due to deeply rooted traditional attitudes that women should not be equal partners in land ownership

Customary laws also tend to disadvantage women. These systems, though diverse, often stem from cultural and religious institutions, like tribal systems or Islamic law, which generally view men as the sole owners of property. Customary dispute resolution systems are dominated by men, and women are often rendered dependent on male relatives. These customary systems are often led by a religious leader or tribal elder who mediates or adjudicates a conflict and tend to be cheaper and more accessible than the formal justice system.

In practice, women often have less access to property than the legal circumstances would suggest. Many women and local land administrators, mainly men, may not be aware of the laws in place, leading to limited enforcement. Women may also lack the financial resources to make a claim to land, especially when doing so can cause conflict, as well as the loss of social and economic support from family.

For example, in Uganda, both the constitution and the Land Act of 1998, the foundational legislation governing land in Uganda, provide equal land rights for women, yet only about 16% of women in Uganda own land. The Land Act allows for the formal registration of customary land, but this land is registered only in the name of the head of household, which is usually a man. Co-ownership of land between spouses is not an option under the law. Though a woman is legally entitled to half of her husband’s property upon his death, there are limitations placed on the ability to use the land as she sees fit. Customary norms substantially limit women’s ability to claim land, as many are beholden to male relatives for their access to land and livelihoods. Land administration bodies, courts, and customary dispute resolution mechanisms are predominantly composed of men and are either unaware of women’s rights to land under the law or uninterested in enforcing these rights


Benefits of Securing Women’s Rights to Land 

Increasing security of land rights has a variety of benefits, both to individuals and communities. Improving access to land for women leads to more pronounced improvements and unique added benefits, including  increased economic opportunities, greater independence, lower food insecurity, and improved environmental outcomes. 

Secure land rights creates greater economic opportunities and reduces poverty. As an asset, land is often used as an investment and collateral for credit, allowing for the accumulation of wealth and increasing capital – but only when ownership is documented. When a household can rely upon documented land tenure, they are also more likely to invest in the land and make long-term plans for its use, leading to increased agricultural productivity. If women had the same access to productive resources as men, agricultural output in could increase by as much as 30%, reducing the number of hungry people in the world by 12 to 17%.

Access to land brings access to income from that land, increasing women’s decision-making power within the household and reducing reliance upon male relatives. This is especially impactful for widows, divorcees, or female dependents, who may face eviction or manipulation without an independent income. Women are more likely than men to use their added income to improve the household’s welfare, leading to better nutritional and educational outcomes for their children. Additionally, income from land gives women bargaining power within the household, and women who own land experience less domestic violence, are more able to leave violent relationships, and are more able to negotiate safe sex.

Providing secure land ownership can improve environmental outcomes. When households have secure long-term ownership over land, they are more likely to invest in climate resilience on their land. Studies in Ecuador, Mexico, Nepal, and Peru have found that secure access to and ownership of land lead to lower rates of deforestation and greater success for reforestation programs. Studies in Uganda and Ethiopia have found that individuals with secure rights to land are significantly more likely to make investments in soil conservation techniques.

Land rights also have tangible benefits in urban areas. Secure land tenure facilitates investment in housing and building projects; evidence shows that individuals without secure land rights, fearing eviction, live in smaller, lower-quality, and less stable buildings. When land ownership is uncertain, governments struggle to provide effective urban planning and public services. Areas without documented ownership experience less access to water, sanitation, and adequate roads

Lack of secure land tenure is a challenge faced by the vast majority of the developing world, most often impacting those most reliant upon the land for their livelihoods. This is an issue compounded by the severe gender inequality in land ownership. If we wish to reduce poverty, empower women, reduce food insecurity, and protect the environment, improving women’s land rights is an effective means to achieve these goals. To do so, we must tackle patriarchal norms, improve legal protections, and increase implementation of women’s land rights where they are most vulnerable. 


Author Biography: Elizabeth Duncan is a Senior Moderator of the International Law Society’s International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a J.D. Candidate at The George Washington University Law School. She has a Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service in International Political Economy from Georgetown University.