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How a New Land Rights Study Amplifies Women’s Hopes and Fears – and Makes us Think Again About Solutions for Everyone

This piece was originally written for and appeared on the blog From Poverty to Power, a conversational blog written and maintained by Duncan Green, strategic adviser for Oxfam GB.

A couple of weeks ago, writing on this blog, Duncan asked a question: How do we, in the international development community, recognize and work with (let alone measure) issues like love, shame, fear, solidarity?

As an advocate for women’s land rights, this question resonated with me. Whenever I hear from women about the fragility of those rights and their efforts to strengthen them – as I’ve done across 16 countries and two continents – these facets of the human condition are ever present.

Fear and hope – attitudes to the future – matter because they determine how we behave. They might inform decisions about investment in land, and about families: decisions which can shape lives, communities and economies.

As for measuring these qualities, I might have the beginnings of an answer, found in a report released this week by Prindex, a new international survey which asks men and women how they feel about the security of their rights to stay in their home and continue to work their land. It’s a joint initiative of the Overseas Development Institute and Global Land Alliance.

Prindex found that 1 in 4 people fear losing their homes or other land. That’s remarkable in itself.

What’s more, Prindex found that women were, on average, over 12 percentage points more likely than men to express fear for their right to retain their home in the event of divorce or the death of their spouse.

That matters for women, and for their societies.

It is so often women who remove rocks from land, plant, fertilize, weed, and harvest crops, care for children, care for the elderly, cook, clean, carry water and wood, and all the rest without earning any money.

Women are less likely to invest sweat equity in land that does not belong to them and over which they have no ultimate control. For example, one study found an increase in investment in soil quality when women’s land rights are more secure.

If their contribution is not valued in a divorce, they are likely to receive much less than their husband, who is usually the traditional money earner.

This affects many more women than those who actually divorce. It includes women that are toughing it out. How many women are in abusive or harmful relationships who cannot leave because if they leave, they leave with nothing—no land and no money?

In Uganda, the Prindex survey indicates that 40 percent of women are insecure about their rights to land in the case of a divorce. This tallies with one of my findings from years ago. In focus group discussions in Uganda, women openly talked about being beaten before the harvest so that they would return to their family for a while and their husbands could harvest and sell the crops before going to bring them home. In rural India, where Hindu women who divorce are regarded as a shame on their families and where women often receive nothing in a divorce, women talk about having to stay in extremely abusive situations because they have nowhere else to go.

So, where does this leave us? Prindex’s gender report shows that there is no one single solution, and that the long-term work of changing norms is key. But one finding in particular caught my eye.

Women who contemplate divorce in countries that take into account women’s nonmonetary contributions to the marriage – including unpaid work on the land and caring or “reproductive” labour – when dividing property at the time of divorce tend to be less fearful than women in countries that do count nonmonetary contributions.

Countries where women display relatively low rates of tenure insecurity in divorce scenarios (30 percent or below) are all countries in which the division of property benefits both spouses at the time a marriage is dissolved.

There are countries such as Liberia, Mozambique, and Burkina Faso in which divorce legislation is gender-equal but women anticipate more insecurity in divorce scenarios. This may reflect differences over whether women know of their legal right, and whether their personal and social circumstances along with the de facto operation of courts allow them to enforce that right.

That’s another reason why Prindex asks – and we should all ask – about perceptions: because they may reflect the reality more than the laws as written in statute books.

Asking about fear and hope becomes a way to recognize that what appears to be a land law issue is also a family law issue and an issue of norms, courts, and citizen awareness. If we don’t ask about perceptions, and if we don’t make sure that we collect data from women as well as traditional heads of household, we risk neglecting a large part of the picture, and at least half of the population.

Our Team is on the Road to #LandConf2019

Next week is the annual World Bank Land and Poverty Conference. This is one of the most important events of the year in the land rights sector. It’s a chance for a wide range of practitioners, researchers, and funders to connect and to learn more about each others’ work. It’s also a chance to step back and reflect on what we do, in the company of colleagues and peers.

The conference begins on March 25th and will be attended by our entire team, who are traveling to Washington, DC from as far away as Australia. The team will be actively involved at the conference chairing sessions, presenting papers and a poster, and teaching two Master Classes related to women’s land rights. We hope to connect with you there!

If you are not attending, we will be updating our social media, including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram, throughout week. Follow Resource Equity on our social channels and look for #LandConf2019 to see our updates and stay informed about all the different aspects of the conference!

If you are attending the conference you will be able to find us at:

Poster:

What is the Research Consortium? The poster will be displayed in the MC Atrium from Monday to Wednesday, March 25-27th. A team member will be available to meet and answers questions at the poster on Tuesday and Wednesday from 12-2 pm. Stop by to learn more about our Research Consortium and learn how you can get involved!


Session Chairs:

Renée Giovarelli will be chairing the session “Recognizing women’s rights over common resources” at 2 pm on Tuesday, March 26th. Come find out more about the role of gender in securing rights over customary and common land.

David Bledsoe will be chairing the session “Gender and land policy” at 10:30 am on Wednesday, March 27th. The session will include papers on innovations in securing women’s land rights in various contexts.


Presentations:

Elisa Scalise will be presenting a paper entitled “When joint ownership is not sufficient to ensure joint registration: lessons from Cabo Verde” at the session “Beyond joint titling: making land institutions gender-sensitive” at 2 pm on Wednesday, March 27th. The paper is co-authored with colleagues from MCC (Michelle Adato and Naomi Cassirer) and discusses some nuanced and complex legal issues in Cabo Verde when trying to register joint ownership rights of women and men who are in de facto unions (or informal marriages).


Master Classes:

Amanda Richardson will be co-teaching a Master Class with Cadasta called “Starting with women: tools for empowerment” at 11 am on Friday, March 29th. This class will include a presentation on Cadasta’s tools and on our Starting with Women approach, and end with a chance to practice using the tools.

Amanda Richardson will also be teaching a Master Class at 1:30 pm on Friday, March 29th called “The Conceptual Framework on Women’s Land Tenure Security: an action tool.” This class will be a collaborative learning experience, where participants will learn about a tool for evaluating the security of women’s rights to land and have a chance to provide feedback.


International Women’s Day and the Power of Women in Groups

I recently traveled to the highlands of Peru. Every woman I met there seemed to be doing something with wool: spinning it, or knitting or crocheting skirts, sweaters, and scarves. I was fascinated by the activity, as a sometimes knitter myself, but when I asked to take pictures of them they reacted with confusion at my interest. In their minds, they were not doing anything remarkable or picture worthy, just the daily work they needed to get done.

I see this everywhere I go. Women are almost always working, even if I’m distracting them by gathering them for group discussions, interviews, or meetings. To them, working while participating is utterly unremarkable. In Ghana, they might be shelling beans. In the remote region of Karamoja in Uganda they might be dividing up posho, and leaving the group intermittently to cook lunch. Everywhere, women are breastfeeding babies or soothing toddlers.

When I’m not interrupting their days these women are, of course, doing much more. Women usually describe days that start before sunup and end long after their husbands and children have gone to bed. They cook, they collect water and firewood, they care for the children. They make cheese, or they make shawls, or they fix clothes. They work in the fields and in their kitchen gardens, or they haul water, dirt, and stones in small-scale mines.

This is not to say men don’t work. They do. But they don’t work in the constant, noticeable way of women. A project I visited in Kenya conducted an exercise with men and women to measure the differences in how they work. They were both asked to describe a typical day, using a clock. When they saw the results, the men were all shocked by how much the women were working. While the men were working too, they were getting up hours later, taking time during the day to relax or see friends, and going to sleep right after dinner while their wives cleaned and prepared for the next day.

You will rarely see women relaxing, or gathering in groups the way men do.

That’s why uniting women in groups can be so powerful.

Meeting with groups of women around the world is one of my favorite parts of my job. Often, just gathering them together to talk about their lives is, for them, an unusual, powerful event.  While I try to ensure that these meetings aren’t taking away from their responsibilities, interviews are often still a chance for them to take a pause from their lives and to gather with and learn from each other.

And that’s just interviews. Where projects focus on creating women’s groups, the dividends can be much more powerful.

Last month I visited two projects working in mining areas—one in Peru run by ALAC, and our own Starting with Women project in Uganda. Although in many ways these places are very different, there are some commonalities: both projects are in mining areas, both are in the poorest areas of their countries, and both focus on empowering groups.

And both projects have had some similar, promising, yet still anecdotal results. Women, even in mixed groups of both men and women, are speaking up more. They are better able to control their income. When their husbands understood the tangible benefits of the group, domestic violence went down.

There is strong evidence to support what we have learned anecdotally. Women’s self-help groups have positive, statistically significant effects on women’s empowerment. And this may be true globally. The 2019 World Bank Women, Business, and the Law report found that women’s rights advocacy groups have played a key role in driving reforms that increased gender equality in laws affecting work.[

When women support each other, and have the space to learn together and from each other, they are much more likely to have control over their bodies, their income, their assets, and their lives. They are more likely to have options when faced with difficulties and are more likely to be able to assure a good life for themselves and their families.  We know that collaborating for change takes time, from people who don’t have a lot of it to spare. In our work with our partners, we aim to help make sure the foundations are in place so that women can assert and enforce their rights to land—just one piece of a much larger puzzle towards achieving gender equality.