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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:


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.


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.

Announcing the Recipients of the Research Consortium’s Inaugural Research Grants

In more than a decade of working on women’s land rights, I have often been asked the question “where is the evidence?” While we have more and more insight into how secure land rights benefit women, men, and communities, the question remains “how to get there?”: we don’t know as much as we should (or would like!) about what works, or does not, to improve land rights for women.

That’s one of the most important objectives of the Research Consortium by Resource Equity: to start to fill in some of the gaps in evidence so that policy-makers, programmers, donors, and practitioners can rely on evidence-backed information to make the most informed decisions possible. Our hope is that this evidence will help make the case that secure land and resource rights for women are achievable and will help to show what strategies can work to achieve stronger land rights for women in practice.

The grant-making program is an important part of the Research Consortium. For our inaugural Request for Proposal we invited applicants to submit proposals that asked new questions of existing data sets, on the topic of the effectiveness of land and resource tenure interventions to improve the lives of women. We also asked applicants to link the research to the Women’s Land Rights Conceptual Framework to help validate, refine, or even challenge it.

We received around 40 very compelling proposals and had the tough choice to select only three, through a rigorous, independent review process.

The Grantees

We are very excited to announce the recipients of our first three grants:

Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)

Iliana Monterosso Ibarra and Anne M. Larson

“Mobilizing change for women and vulnerable groups within collective tenure regimes”

This research will contribute to the analysis of gender differentiated results of ongoing forest tenure reform processes in Peru, Uganda, and Indonesia, providing lessons and identification of implementation practices and action resources that mobilize change, in order to improve women’s and vulnerable groups’ access to land and resources under collective tenure regimes.

Associates Research Trust – Uganda

Herbert Kamusiime and Paul Ntegeka Mwesige

“Do certificates of customary ownership as currently issued/delivered translate into more secure land rights for women and men involved?”

This research is a case study from Nwoya district in Uganda, using quantitative data from beneficiary and non-beneficiary households to assess whether and how current processes for issuing customary ownership certificates are working to achieve more secure land rights for women and men.

Land Investment for Transformation Programme (LIFT) (Development Associates International – DAI)

Workhowa Mekonen, Gladys Savolainen, and John Leckie

“Challenges facing Ethiopian women in realizing their land rights during second level land certification”

LIFT is a program that is systematically issuing land certificates to people in Ethiopia. The purpose of this research is to synthesize the LIFT program’s knowledge and experience of land certification in Ethiopia and to answer the question: how have these practices positively or negatively impacted the land use rights of women and vulnerable groups in Ethiopia?

Results and Findings

We’re excited to share their results and findings with you on the Research Consortium website in the coming months. You will also learn more about the grantees and their work, and see how their research helps to start to fill some of the gaps in knowledge in this field.

Got Questions?

In my line of work I think a good deal about women’s land rights—every day in fact. After working for over 20 years on helping women gain legal and social rights to the land they use, I am frustrated by the slow progress of the work being done. There has been progress, of course, but I am impatient—even a little bit exasperated. I know others in the field feel the same way and we all wonder why progress seems to happen so slowly.

There are many complicating factors, and I could write a book on the nuances of the truly difficult issues facing rural women. But the thing that really bothers me is this: after all the great gender strategies written up and approved by foreign aid organizations around the world, after all the important people finally taking notice that supporting rural women’s right to land and their economic empowerment is “smart economics,” and after all the grants that require gender be considered when implementing land projects, we still get it wrong over and over again, and women, whose livelihoods depend on us getting it right, lose.

So what is it going to take to change the rate of progress? I have a few suggestions.

Big Changes to Your LandWise Library

We are excited to announce the newly updated LandWise Library website. LandWise is Resource Equity’s online library for primary legal materials, articles, and other practical resources. These resources are organized by country, topic, language, and document type. To see a quick overview of the library’s contents you can visit the browse page.

In addition, LandWise houses a number of women’s land rights and land tenure security practice guides and tools that were created specifically to assist practitioners working in the field of women’s land rights. These guides include general frameworks for understanding land rights and inheritance and country-specific guides for Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.


LandWise was initially launched in 2013. Over the years we continued to maintain and populate the library as new research was published and new laws were passed. However, as with any digital tool, the need for site maintenance increased as time went by. We recognized that LandWise was long due for a larger overhaul!

Equal Inheritance Shares on the Horizon in the Arab World?

A bit of good women’s rights news has greeted us to end 2018. The Tunisian Cabinet recently approved a bill that will require male and female heirs be given equal inheritance shares. This is a first for the country, and is one of the first proposed bills of its kind in the Arab world. While the bill must now go to the Tunisian parliament for debate, this is still a victory for women’s land rights.

We have seen in our work that equal inheritance rights on paper do not always translate to equal rights in practice, but good laws in support of women’s rights are an important first step. Tunisia has a way to go on both fronts, but may be headed in a good direction even though there is still opposition. In fact, a survey conducted last year showed that 63% of Tunisians, including 52% of Tunisian women, oppose equal inheritance shares. Many Muslim clerics in Tunisia oppose equal inheritance rights as well. Vocal opposition remains a reality.

However, the Tunisian Feminist Association, some local NGOs, and secular activists all support the bill. We see an effort to eradicate discrimination against women, to reduce barriers to the equal exercise of rights, and to increase economic independence for women. We see a bill being introduced for debate when five or ten years ago such legislation would never have been crafted.

These victories might seem small, but these incremental changes lead, ultimately, to greater empowerment of women. We applaud the Tunisian Cabinet for taking this step in the fight for women to gain equal rights to land, resources, and inheritance.

As We Turn Four We Want to Say Thank You!

As Resource Equity turns four, we are reflecting on what motivated us to begin, and why we continue: ensuring women’s rights to land and natural resources are at the center of our work.

We founded Resource Equity four years ago in order to center women in our work, and to ensure that women’s experiences, needs, and desires drive what we do. We know that secure land and resource rights are a critical building block that provide women, and their families and communities, the opportunity to prosper. However, for a long time, women’s voices have been excluded from land and resource rights reforms. We believe that many of the solutions to the challenges women face are found by starting with women, and by truly listening to them and including their perspective in everything that we do.

When economic development projects start with women, they benefit both women and men, but the reverse is not always true. In fact, development work often has unintended consequences. A project which gives money to households might see that money used to purchase alcohol instead of food. A change in a law to ensure that families get titles to land may result in women’s rights to land being extinguished in the process. Livestock given to women can be taken and sold by husbands who say that they own the land that was used to grow the fodder. Land given to landless women may not be used, because it is too far from home and the duties they have there, too barren, without water, or in an insecure place.

One way to foresee and forestall these consequences is to view people as people, not as projects, and to trust that they are normally the best judges of what is best for them. Even when we are constrained by funding and resources, we work to make sure that we talk to the people we are working with first, and that we work with partners in-country who know and care about women’s challenges and strengths.

Part of our work is to recognize and address the needs we can fulfill, then work to connect the communities we have committed to helping with other resources, and, most importantly, to ensure the women and men we are working with know that they are heard and that we are prioritizing their articulated needs.

“Sécurité Foncière des Femmes : un Cadre Conceptuel” est Maintenant Disponible en Français

C’est avec plaisir que nous accueillons notre blogueuse invitée, Philippine Sutz. Outre à nous avoir aidé à traduire notre Cadre Conceptuel, Philippine est basée à Londres où elle travaille en tant que ‘Senior Researcher’ auprès de l’International Institute for Environment and Development. Ses domaines de recherche principaux sont l’émancipation des femmes et l’accès des femmes au foncier.

Le Consortium de Recherche, par Resource Equity, vient de publier la version française de ‘Sécurité Foncière des Femmes : un Cadre Conceptuel. Ce document, co-écrit par Cheryl Doss et Ruth Meinzen-Dick, est le premier outil du genre permettant une analyse systématique et cohérente de l’ensemble des facteurs pouvant influencer la sécurité foncière des femmes et à fournir des définitions et concepts communs.

La sécurité foncière est un moyen pour les femmes de pérenniser leurs moyens de subsistance et de contribuer au bien-être de leurs familles et de leurs communautés. Aujourd’hui, un nombre toujours plus important d’organisations entreprennent des études et interventions visant à renforcer la sécurité foncière des femmes. Ceci est une excellente nouvelle ! Cependant, il peut être parfois difficile de tirer des enseignements généraux de ces interventions – et donc de les appliquer ailleurs par la suite – dans la mesure où les éléments clés du contexte ne sont pas toujours clairement identifiés. Les concepts auxquels ces études font référence tels que ‘sécurité foncière’ ou ‘droits fonciers’ ne sont également pas toujours explicitement définis, ce qui peut prêter à confusion.

Our Thoughts on the International Day of Rural Women

There is not just one story for rural women—whether they are farmers, miners, mothers, or daughters. On October 15th it was the International Day of Rural Women, a day to reflect on the diversity of rural women, and to shine a spotlight on women who are part of the agrarian community.

Talking with female miners in Uganda recently, I learned how the lives of women who live in rural areas are impacted by so many different factors beyond their control—climate, weather, health, men, local markets, outside investors and speculators, laws, and government programs. These women, facing insecurity in their rights and their lives, must be resilient and inventive to survive.
In Mubende, for example, women were traveling great distances with their partners, their children, and their belongings to do petty trading in a gold rush town, offering local beer and food to the small scale miners that flooded the area in their thousands to benefit from the minerals in the soil. However, they were soon evicted, along with their families, by the landowners who had made a deal with a mining company giving them exclusive rights.

In Busiya, women were panning for gold where the takings were so slight that the landholders did not mind when the women came with their “pans,” because they knew that it would be no threat to their profit. Though these women were thankful for the gold because it allowed them to pay for school fees and clothing for their children, it came at a price. Some lost their rights to use land for cultivation because once gold was found their husbands, who were customary land owners, believed the potential of a lucrative gold find to have more value than what the women were earning by selling produces. To strengthen their rights, these women formed an association so that they could try to pool their funds and their labor to try to get by financially.

There were also the women who were from the semi-nomadic Karamoja region who were leading teams of laborers to break marble and limestone and fill huge trucks. They fed the workers, gave them refreshments, took care of their children, made deals with the buyers, and negotiated with truck drivers. Then these same women had to navigate a home situation in order to try and retain a share of their earnings from mining so they could pay for their family’s food, schooling, and healthcare.

We’ve written on the links between land, gender, and extractives and we have written about the importance of land rights for rural women who rely on agriculture to survive and meet their responsibilities as a mother, wife, sister, or head of household. In all of this, it can be easy to lose sight of the industry, the strategic thinking, the endurance, and strength that rural women draw from every day to make their life work. As shown elsewhere, there is no one story for rural women; perhaps the greatest tribute we can make to rural women every day is to truly recognize their ability to overcome endless obstacles and their daily struggles, and to learn from them.

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