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Milo Mitchell/IFPRI

Strengthening women’s land rights: what does data have to do with it?

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

The call for International Women’s Day 2016 asks people to Pledge for Parity. The pledge offers five components: help women and girls achieve their ambitions, challenge conscious and unconscious bias, call for gender-balanced leadership, value women and men’s contributions equally, and create inclusive, flexible cultures. While all of these are important, none of them highlight the ways in which women and girls have less access to the resources that they will need to succeed.  

Harvesting Casava IFPRI Nigeria
Aresearcher harvests a cassava root from a farm in Abuja, Nigeria.
Milo Mitchell/IFPRI

The path to gender parity: beyond the board room

For rural women in developing countries, improving corporate culture is a lower priority than increased access to, and ownership of the resources of production, particularly land.

To move toward gender parity, we need information on women’s current land rights. For years, advocates of women’s land rights relied on the highly publicized fact that women only own 1 or 2 percent of the world’s land. This unsubstantiated statistical claim was supported with documented cases of where women had no land rights or where the rights that they did have were systematically violated. 

Nationally representative data sets with information on women’s land rights – ownership, management and decision-making over land – are beginning to provide the much needed baseline to allow us to understand the impacts of policies and structural transformation on women’s property rights. The data is still limited to a relatively small number of countries, and in most cases is only self-reported land rights rather than documented or officially recognized rights, but it is a start. Women’s land rights are included in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) and thus, there will be increasing pressure on governments to collect such data. 

The many dimensions of women’s land rights

Even as we want measures of women’s land rights that can be compared across countries and across time, we are aware of the complexity of these rights. To understand land rights with respect to agricultural productivity and rural livelihoods, we need to better understand two dimensions, in particular, of women’s land rights.

First, there are a bundle of relevant land rights. We often consider the rights to access, control and own land. While there are no standard definitions, access usually involves the right to farm a piece of land and obtain at least some of the produce. Control encompasses more rights, including the rights to make decisions about what is grown and often to make improvements on the land. Finally, ownership is the most comprehensive bundle of rights, usually defined to include the right to transfer the land through lease, sales, or bequest.  

Second, the security of these rights is also key. There is strong evidence that secure tenure is associated with higher levels of investment and productivity in agriculture. Not all reported land rights are necessarily secure. But these analyses have been done at the household level, rather than considering the tenure of individuals, particularly men and women, to the land. Women often face an additional layer of tenure insecurity when their household, kin or community does not recognize their land rights. 

Thus, quantifying land rights is a challenge. Yet, if we ignore these dimensions of land rights, including the rights of individuals within farming households, we are likely to miss some of the factors that will not only affect technology choices but also agricultural outcomes. 

For agricultural researchers investigating the varied dimensions of women’s land rights, the “who” is equally, if not more important than the ‘what’ and the ‘why.’ Who decides how the revenue is allocated?  This begs the question - are a woman’s rights to access the land therefore dependent upon her relationship with her husband?   

Infographic: Making Sense of Land Statistics and Gender. 

Produced by the Gender and Land Rights Database (GLRD) of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM), which is led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Towards gender parity

As a community of researchers, we need to test these various dimensions of women’s property rights to identify their relationships with the outcomes that we most care about – improving food security, increasing productivity and reducing poverty.  

This International Women’s Day, as we answer the call to pledge for parity, we, as a community of researchers can take a first step to standardize some of our survey questions and share our findings as we hone in on the best practices. This could help to not only better understand the dimensions of women’s rights and access to land but also set the basis for providing consistent data that can be used to develop policies to strengthen women’s land rights.