This article was first published in the Delhi Post.
Secure land rights for women and girls are linked to increased women's leadership and autonomy, enhanced economic opportunities, better social security, safety and dignified societal standing. This helps build thriving and resilient households and communities with improved incomes, better child nutrition, greater educational attainment for girls, enhanced women’s agency and more sustainable use of natural resources.
However, in many Asian countries, women’s access to and decision-making power over land, in the sense of ownership, use, and tenure security, is limited and often hindered by existing social norms and patriarchal attitudes. This is further exacerbated by restrictive policy instruments and legal frameworks and/or weak law enforcement at the local and national levels.
The intersecting identities of women, such as Indigenous, young, rural, and urban poor, among others, define the importance of their access to land and natural resources. Indigenous women, for example, rely on the traditional knowledge passed down for generations to sustain their daily life. Such knowledge, at the same time, allows Indigenous women to conserve both their land and territories and their culture.
The context of women’s land rights in South Asia
Bangladesh, Nepal, and India are three geographies that exemplify climate and land inequalities. According to a study by the International Land Coalition (ILC), South Asia and Latin America exhibit the highest levels of agricultural land inequality, with the top 10 per cent of landowners capturing up to 75 per cent of agricultural land and the bottom 50 per cent owning less than 2 per cent.
In Bangladesh, for example, strict inheritance laws based on religion-based personal laws, prevent women from owning land and property. Women who are single, divorced, or household heads are also deprived of inheritance property, and in addition, there is a strong tendency for households not to put women’s names on the land deed.
Climate change has also affected the lives of communities living in coastal areas like the Sundarbans, a vast mangrove forest spanning about 10,000 square kilometres in parts of Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal. Extreme weather conditions and rising sea levels have a debilitating effect on the Sundarbans’ agricultural land, making women farmers more susceptible to crop failures and natural disasters.
In India, land ownership is highly skewed in favour of men, with women constituting barely 14 per cent of all landowners in India. Lack of legal ownership and access to natural resources contribute to women’s vulnerability to climate change, for example, making it harder for them to access government compensation and relief measures for crop failure.
Nepal has adopted legal reforms that allow women and girls to enjoy equal opportunities to own or inherit land as men. The 2015 Constitution notably introduced the prohibition of gender-based discrimination, equal inheritance and property rights for both women and men. Despite such progressive policies, women and young people in rural areas are socially disadvantaged. The marginalisation manifests in multiple forms, such as caste, class and culture, making women feel less secure than men in their tenure security.
There is a vast gap between policies and practices due to the need for more effective law enforcement. Currently, the Joint Land Ownership scheme is being integrated into mainstream policies and practices that mandate the government to issue land certificates in the name of both husband and wife, and provide land to landless communities, including Dalits and informal settlers.
The impact of climate change is hard-hitting for communities in the three countries, and women are the ones who bear the brunt the most. On top of caring for their families, women often do the physical work of collecting water and other resources from faraway sources, toiling on their farms for long periods of time and generally working harder to sustain their income. Moreover, agriculture in the three countries is primarily rain-fed, which makes it susceptible to extreme weather and unpredictable rainfall.
Why governments should talk about land rights for women
There is a need for women to have stronger literacy on land rights and the opportunities that come with the enjoyment of such a right. Women from marginalised communities rarely engage in policy-making at the local or national level. They rarely access the services of local land offices, which contributes to their lower level of land literacy.
Initiatives brought by civil society or non-profit organisations to raise awareness of land rights among women remain a stepping stone towards achieving effective policy advocacy. Building confidence and communication skills among women can strengthen their leadership abilities and amplify their voices, especially when they must speak up to local-level government officials such as land administration offices, agricultural welfare offices, and more.
The 67th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW67), which takes place in New York between 6-17 March, and International Women’s Day, which took place on 8 March, serve as an opportunity for governments to advance their commitments to achieving gender equality and empowering rural women and girls.
The gap in the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) related to the guarantee of rights of Indigenous women and girls, including the right to land and territory, has come to an end with the recently approved General Recommendation 39.
The new instrument serves as a guide for governments to adopt legislative measures and policies that align with their commitments to address any form of discrimination faced by Indigenous women and girls. CSW67 should provide a safe space for community representatives to voice their aspirations and enjoy meaningful participation in decision-making processes.
Similarly, in early April 2023, ILC members in Nepal, Bangladesh and India will co-organise a regional policy dialogue that focuses on women’s land rights and their relevance in strengthening the capacity of local communities in climate change adaptation. The event is co-organised with the Nepal Ministry of Land Management, Cooperatives, and Poverty Alleviation and supported by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI).
The event seeks to catalyse and stimulate dialogue between civil society, government bodies and those impacted the most by climate change and weak land tenure security to create meaningful participation in finding climate solutions from the ground up.
Amid the deepening climate crisis, it is high time for regional actors and, more importantly, governments to become more aware of the benefits of women owning land and recognise them as farmers and producers, as well as their contributions to their families and communities.