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Do Inheritance Law Reforms Work for Women?


We recently sat down with ABC Radio National to discuss how women’s land rights are impacted by inheritance laws around the world. In more than 30 countries, women do not have the right to inherit land, either because the laws specifically prohibit it or customary practices ignore any legal protections women may have. 

But do inheritance reforms actually work for women? This report reviews evidence to answer that question.

Not so long ago, we shared an article about women farmers in Australia being locked out of ownership of farmland, despite making up a large portion of farmers. This situation  and the perception that farming is a masculine enterprise – is common globally.

Around the world, women’s rights to inherit land are not equal. Many customary tenure systems are patrilineal where inheritance of wealth, land, and property rights runs along the male blood line, excluding women who can only use land by permission of their fathers and husbands, putting them at risk of destitution should those relationships end in death or divorce. 

In customary matrilineal regimes, property and wealth devolves along the female blood line, but control and management rights may still be held by men. And many statutory laws globally continue to discriminate against women inheriting land and property rights. Yet, according to the World Bank, 38 countries around the world have unequal inheritance laws for daughters and sons. Since 2009, only five of the 190 countries needing inheritance reforms have passed new laws; if this pace continues, equality in property rights for women will be a long time coming.

Inheritance rights for women are part the 2030 Development Agenda (the SDGs) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) calls on states to eliminate discrimination of women with regard to land and inheritance.

Yet, there remains little evidence on what works to eliminate discrimination against women’s inheritance in practice.

Building on the analysis and findings our report, “What Works for Women’s Land and Property Rights? What Do We Know and What Do We Need to Know?”this evidence brief summarizes the strength and availability of evidence on inheritance interventions, and asks the question of whether there is evidence that the inheritance reform worked for women. The brief reviews online literature, academic databases, and discussions with global and national actors including practitioners, researchers, and activists. 

Available evidence shows that improving women’s inheritance rights – both as daughters and wives – can make a real difference in women’s lives, but more research is needed.

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