Empowering Women to Take Back the Land

By Elena Davert

In celebration of International Day of Rural Women last week, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) partnered with the World Bank and International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) to host a seminar on gender and land acquisition in rural agricultural communities. The seminar featured a study led by Cheryl Doss at Yale University that investigated property rights for women in Eastern and Central Uganda.

Overall, the results of suggest that additional research needs to look beyond declared “household ownership” of land and investigate the different rights that men and women actually exercise. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

During the seminar, Allan Bomuhangi, a visiting research assistant with Yale, and Ruth Meinzen-Dick, an IFPRI Senior Research fellow, discussed the importance of research on poverty, productivity and equity in rural communities. They emphasized the importance of agricultural empowerment of women, which is often dependent on secure access to land.

The researchers used the study to achieve three main goals:

  • Identify the mechanisms – both formal and informal – through which women can obtain land;
  • Assess the various models of ownership and their associated rights;
  • and identify how property rights vary from district to district.

Through a combination of surveys, household interviews, and focus groups, the researchers connected with households from 7 villages in the districts of Luwero and Kapchorwa. Interviews with people from these two very distinct districts shed light on the many different types of land ownership that have developed over the years. In addition to inheritance, individual ownership, and joint ownership, other land-use trends include renting agreements, land leases, and a variety of informal methods of land access, such as community land use and squatting. It took a series of cross-checking questions to determine which of these agreements were used in each household because many individuals were unclear about the type of land-use agreement they actually had.

The researchers also found that although many women spoke of ‘owning land,’ they, in fact, did not have any real legal rights to it. Many of the joint-ownership agreements between spouses only included the husbands’ name in paperwork or granted him priority over his wife when making financial decisions. Even land inherited from the woman’s family was often signed over to the husband without her knowledge. And in many cases, the degree to which a wife had legal protection of land rights depended entirely on the type of marriage arrangement she had with her husband. While more traditional marriages often provided a woman with more significant rights to the couple’s joint-owned land, less formal marriages – with less paperwork – tended to provide women with less legal protection.

In the Luwero district, women also had more substantial individual ownership – the researchers explained this by pointing out that Luwero has much higher divorce rates, and thus more women are the head of households.

Overall, the results of suggest that additional research needs to look beyond declared “household ownership” of land and investigate the different rights that men and women actually exercise. This information could not only help raise women’s awareness of inheritance and property rights, but could also help them gain more legal independence over all.

Although Bomuhangi and Meinzen-Dick noted that the final conclusions of the study have not been established, they will be available on the project website as soon as they are finalized.

To learn more about initiatives to empower rural women, see: Empowering the Women of India’s Poorest Region, Innovation of the Week: Banking on the Harvest, Innovation of the Week: Feeding Communities by Focusing on Women, Strengthening Rural Women’s Leadership in Farming and Producer Organization, and Rural Women’s Leadership in Agriculture and NRM Scoping Studies.

Elena Davert is a Research Intern with Nourishing the Planet.

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