Comment: Is mandatory joint titling of marital property necessary to protect women’s rights?
The systematic titling and registration experience of Laos is often looked upon in the literature as a positive example for women, and a source of important lessons on gender and land administration. A provision in the 2003 Land Law in Laos PDR helped to create the space for those positive outcomes; it mandated joint titling of land that was held by a married couple. Most of the systematic titling and registration in Laos till now has been focused on urban and peri-urban areas and now the government has its sights on rural lands. In the lead up to rural land titling, a new Land Law has been adopted (2019). Interestingly, the mandatory joint titling provision has been omitted from the new Land Law – apparently based on the view that there are other sufficient protections for women’s land rights in other laws, and that the mandated joint titling was not necessary. At the same time the Land Law states clearly that a land title is the only evidence of a right to land.
This is disappointing, especially given that land rights are customarily transferred along matrilineal lines in some of the ethnic (indigenous) groups in Laos. The question is whether that view, that women’s rights are sufficiently protected elsewhere, holds true in practice, and whether those protections are enough to also protect a woman’s property rights.
Looking at the matrilineal context in Laos, in our experience, despite their stated purpose, titling and registration programs do not always simply record rights as they exist on the ground or in law. Land titling and registration programs are often heavy on administrative and procedural rules to help make them work. And those rules can inadvertently disadvantage women, even if women have legally and customary rights to own land. Indeed, those rules can raise significant questions for gender equity. When it comes to whether women benefit from land titling and registration, having the right to land is one important step, but it is not the only one. Very often, women’s rights fall through procedural and administrative cracks that take on the contours of prevailing social and gender norms. For example, if evidence must be shown to prove a claim of a right to land, is that evidence equally available to women and men? If a claim of ownership must be asserted in a public forum, is that a forum that women and men have equal access to? Is there a social norm that places the male as the head of the household, even if the land of that household is held by the woman in the house, and are officials more likely to deal with the household head? Are women even aware of the implications to their future interests (compensation for loss, sharing in benefits, inheritance etc) that are represented in a land title?
Back to mandatory joint titling. We know it is not a panacea for ensuring gender equitable titling and registration programs, but we do know that if something is mandated it is more likely to be done, especially when obligations for administration are devolved to a more local level. And this is made all the more important if a land title is the only evidence of a right to land, and if land titles are used as the basis for compensation for loss of rights when land use is converted, such as with the large hydro-electric projects underway in Laos today.
What do you think? If you have direct experience in mandatory joint titling or a question related to that, feel free to drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org where our researchers will answer any questions you have.
You can read more about Laos in the new research by Resource Equity grantees here.