Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Enhancing Poor Rural Women's Land Rights in the Developing World

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Enhancing Poor Rural Women's Land Rights in the Developing World

Article excerpt

Nearly half the world's population remains rural, and women in rural households do a large share of the agricultural work in nearly all developing countries. However, only a small fraction of the farmland on which they depend is held by those women under any form of secure, long-term tenure. The issue of how to assure that rural women in the developing world have adequate rights to the land on which they rely for nutrition, income, status, and security is a fundamental one. Securing land rights for women is indeed fundamental to the achievement of a whole series of desired outcomes: improved income; better nutrition and education for children; giving women a voice within the family; more general empowerment within the community; and assurance of livelihood in widowhood or divorce. They are important even for such goals as protection against spousal abuse and unsafe sex. Many past reforms bearing on land tenure have ignored the issue of women's land rights or have taken legal and policy approaches that seemed aspirational, at best, or doomed to failure. But an increasingly large fund of experience with specific reforms supportive of rural women's security of land tenure shows that in a wide range of settings, many of which might appear initially discouraging, women's land property rights can be greatly enhanced. This article explores some of the legal and policy reforms that hold out increasing hope for giving rural women in the developing world secure, long-term land rights, which serve as a gateway to a large complex of social and economic rights and benefits.


The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that women,--comprise, on average, 43 percent of the agricultural labor force in developing countries." (1) The proportion of women in the agricultural sector increases to 50 percent in Eastern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. (2) But women are estimated to own only a small fraction of the land on which such food is produced. (3) Given that 40 percent of the total population of the developing world still depends on agriculture for its livelihood, and that land is the most important rural asset--since it is the chief source of nutrition, income, security, and status--the question of women's stake in such land and how their land rights may be protected and enhanced looms as a large one. (4)

When land rights have been on the legal and policy reform agenda, great benefits for the poor have been achieved. (5) However, until quite recently, most of the opportunities to use the reform to focus on women and differentially improve their rights, status, and security as land-rights holders have been lost or ignored. (6) More generally, the need to protect what few rights to land rural women in developing countries do have, and how that goal may be advanced through the legal system, has not been a prominent subject of discussion for policymakers or legal reformers. Reformers dealing with land-rights issues have considered benefits or protections for land rights of the "family" or the "household," often documented in the sole name of the adult male "head of household," if documented at all. The household itself was viewed through the metaphor of a featureless black box, without differentiation or discussion of its individual constituents or interior workings.


However, an increasingly large body of research now calls attention to the multiple benefits that can arise from assuring secure land rights for wives or other women who live within the household. Thus, it is important to implement measures that will provide such land rights where they are absent, or enhance such land rights where they are weak or partial, for poor rural women in developing countries.

Secure land rights for both women and men are critically important to creating an "investment horizon" that allows the making of medium- to long-term investments in a particular piece of land such as irrigation; land leveling; land terracing; establishing greenhouses, trellises, fishponds, and facilities for animal husbandry; carrying out intensive soil improvements; and tree planting. …

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