On International Women's Day, let's be reminded that women land rights defenders play a key role in protecting the most important source of livelihoods, land and natural resources
When Shapla*, who was 18 back then, found out that she would inherit the properties of her deceased parents, she never thought she would be met with so much hardship. Her older brother instead tortured her for about a month, in an attempt to drive her lunatic. “I was locked in a dark room. My older brother tied my legs on a chain and sometimes he would come to the room only to give me an injection and sleeping pills forcefully. He didn’t even give me enough food,” said Shapla. Finally, local authorities with the help of a neighbour rescued her.
Elsewhere in Bangladesh, Zaynab Begum inherited 2 acres of farmland from his maternal uncle after her mother had died, but she was not given the opportunity to hold the property. Instead, her two sons tortured and forcibly took her fingerprints and registered the land in their own names.
There are a lot of women like Shapla and Zaynab in our society who are being ill-treated in various ways because of property. In a male-dominated society, women are unable to establish their rights over land and other resources. Most of the educated and working women do not enjoy the rights of their property and some are forced to hand over their income to their husbands. They are not involved or even asked their opinions in the decision-making process in the family.
Women spearheading the land movement in Bangladesh
Bangladeshi women have been struggling and advocating for equal distribution of land since 1947. Historically, women have played a significant role in the peasant and land rights movement. For instance, Ila Mitra, a veteran front runner of the Tebhaga Movement, was a legendary peasant leader in the undivided Bengal. The contribution of Ila Mitra (popularly known as the queen mother of the farmers in the then Bengal) to Tebhaga Movement did not only play a role in getting a fair account of the peasants of this country, but also radically changed the land management system of the country. At that time, share-cropping peasants had to give half of their harvest to landowners. The demand of the movement was to reduce the share given to landlords to one-third and to retain the two-thirds of the production for themselves.
Similar struggles to protect our land rights are still ongoing in many places in Bangladesh. Pricilla Murmu, an indigenous woman from the Santal community in Dinajpur District, northern Bangladesh is one the leader of the land rights movement. More than 2,000 Santal and Bangalee families were evicted from their 1842.30 acres of ancestral farmland by a sugar mill in 2016.
The role of women in agriculture
Land is considered as the most significant means of production, source of livelihoods and power structure in rural Bangladesh. Land provides food, nutrition, shelter, ensures income and is a symbol of social prestige and power. Despite so, women in our society are deprived of property rights due to poverty and patriarchal views ingrained in customary law and regulations.
Conversion of agricultural land for industrial purposes are burgeoning, making local communities and rural farmers vulnerable to displacement. The involvement of men in agriculture is declining owing to other income opportunities. This, in turn, pushes people, especially men and heads of families, to migrate into urban areas to find jobs. In the absence of their husbands, it is the women who stay behind and work on their farmland.
Despite making the highest contribution to agriculture, women are not recognized as farmers; even they do not have ownership and control over land. Government benefits, agricultural cards, subsidies, loan and everything are only made available to male farmers. Women also face major obstacles in marketing agricultural products because society still cannot accept women to bargain with men for their products in the marketplace.
Way forward in protecting women's land rights
Bangladesh has made noticeable progress in terms of reducing gender disparity in recent years, which is attested by the World Economic Forum in its Global Gender Gap Report (2020). The report takes into account indicators such as education, maternal healthcare, political participation, employment, and participation in productive economic activities.
Despite such reported progress, women in Bangladesh lag well behind their male peers, facing routine discrimination, inequality and are regular victims of sexual and domestic violence. The Constitution of Bangladesh highlights that “Women shall have equal rights with men in all spheres of the State and of public life”.
Women’s equal right to land, particularly on women’s access to khas (public land), is one of the specific intervention areas of the National Engagement Strategy (NES) in Bangladesh. The Khas Land Settlement and Distribution Policy in Bangladesh is discriminative because it stipulates that widows and single mothers are entitled to claim khas only if she has an able-bodied son. In other cases, the khas land is registered in the name of both the husband and wife, but normally the wife has no say, control or possession of the land.
NES members provide capacity-building sessions on women's leadership at the local level. NES members and partners are consistently advocating with lawmakers and mobilising local communities, civil society organisations, the media, and the public to influence the duty bearers in making the current land policy more inclusive.
*not her real name