As I reflect back on my eight years of experience working in the field of women’s land rights, I am struck most by the similarities I’ve found—not just among the women I’ve worked with and spoken to in the developing world, but among all the women I have met, everywhere.
In my work, I have the opportunity and privilege to speak with women, mostly from rural areas, in groups and individually. Whether in Kenya, India, or Ghana, women want basic, simple things: good nutrition, education, healthcare, and peace, for their families and for themselves. Frequently that means they need help securing their rights to the land they use, to ensure they will have a place to raise food and their children.
Women sometimes laugh at their struggles with their husbands or recalcitrant children. One group of women in Kenya told me that they’d like all of the men to be sent away for a year. That way, they said, they could get everything running smoothly without interference. The men could come back after a year if they promised to behave.
But, of course, at their root, these humorous conversations are not funny at all. Women can be held back by the men in their communities, and, more specifically, by long-standing patriarchal customs that prevent them from doing things like owning land or making financial decisions.
In our group conversations, women turn to me and say “you don’t have these issues in America,” or “in America, it’s different. You don’t have the same customs and traditions.”
In fact, historically, most countries had laws that not only kept women from owning property, but that effectively made them property themselves. It wasn’t until various Married Women’s Property Acts were passed in the nineteenth century that most married women in much of the English-speaking world were allowed to own property in their own names. And as the “Me Too” movement has shown, although laws have changed, women in the U.S. still fight to be heard, and believed, and respected as they do in the rest of the world.
So many men that were perceived as “good guys” have been exposed in the last few years as anything but good. It is easy to despair, and to feel negative about men in general. I have grappled with this in my years in this field as I regularly hear stories from women of beatings, of sexual assaults, of being chased off of land—almost always by men, and almost always told as if the stories are a routine part of life.
But, of course, there are many good men. In my work, I also see champions all the time. Male leaders who work to make sure women are included on leadership councils. Male politicians who work to make laws more equitable. Male community members who make space for women’s voices to be heard.
So, what does “Me Too” have to do with land rights? Plenty. At Resource Equity we are championing women’s land rights, and saying women need to be able to control their work and their income and their lives. We partner with men and women who believe that empowered women can change the world and we are creating meaningful change for women, men, and societies everywhere. It is only by acknowledging that there is an issue and by working together, regardless of gender, that we can create a more equitable society, for ourselves and for our children.