In many countries around the world, women’s property rights are limited by social norms, customs and at times legislation, hampering their economic status and opportunities to overcome poverty. Even in countries where women constitute the majority of small farmers and do more than 75 percent of the agricultural work, they are routinely denied the right to own the land they cultivate and on which they are dependent to raise their families.
Ownership of land and property empowers women and provides income and security. Without resources such as land, women have limited say in household decision-making, and no recourse to the assets during crises. This often relates to other vulnerabilities such as domestic violence and HIV and AIDS.
In regions of conflict, the impact of unequal land rights has particularly serious consequences for women — often the only survivors. In conflict and post-conflict situations, the number of women-headed households often increases sharply as many men have either been killed or are absent. Without their husbands, brothers or fathers — in whose name land and property titles are traditionally held — they find themselves denied access to their homes and fields by male family members, former in-laws or neighbors. Without the security of a home or income, women and their families fall into poverty traps and struggle for livelihoods, education, sanitation, health care, and other basic rights.
In recent years, international agreements have repeatedly reiterated the importance of women’s land and property rights. The Beijing Platform for Action affirmed that women’s right to inheritance and ownership of land and property should be recognized. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has underscored it, referring to rural women’s rights to equal treatment in land and agrarian reform processes. Women’s property rights are an implicit part of achieving the Millennium Development Goals, specifically Goal 1 on eradicating extreme poverty and Goal 3 on gender equality.
UN Women advocates for women’s land and property rights as part of its core strategy to enhance women’s economic security and rights and reduce feminized poverty. There is a strong focus on ensuring that women benefit from equal rights to property under the law, as well as in actual practice at the grassroots level.
UN Women’s extensive work on women’s land rights in the CIS region includes successful projects in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. UNIFEM (now UN Women) spearheaded a process of legal analysis, advocacy and partnership-building that led to the adoption of gender amendments in the Land Code in Tajikistan and in the Law on Land Management in Kyrgysztan. Working with local partners, current efforts are focused on overcoming two common barriers to women’s ownership rights: the precedence given to tradition over modern laws, and women’s own lack of awareness about their entitlements.
In Kyrgyzstan, where 66 percent of the population live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for a living, societal norms and customs often limit women’s opportunities and rights to land. Media campaigns and local seminars have spread awareness about women’s land rights. Since 2003, legal advisory centres have also been changing this landscape in all Kyrgyz districts. With UN Women support, local organizations have provided legal aid and assistance on land issues to thousands of women, including direct legal representation.
In a two-pronged approach, the programme has also supported the courts of elders that are authorized by the government to resolve disputes at the local level and serve as informal justice systems in rural areas. Following training sessions on women’s rights, the courts of elders have proven to be critical allies in the effort to secure women’s right to land. The advice offered through UN Women’s programme has similarly been embraced by religious leaders, imams, in the south of Kyrgyzstan. In 2008, they requested a review of the basic principles of Islamic Sharia law regulating property rights. Proving beneficial for the services provided by the imams to their communities, extensive training programmes for religious leaders are now planned across the country.
The programme in Kyrgyzstan also introduced a small grants fund to support women’s cooperatives and small local government projects to address practical gender needs at the village level. The scheme positively affected nearly 15,000 women, who were able to improve their livelihoods through a variety of agricultural extension services such as increasing women’s access to irrigation and improved terms for grinding wheat.
In a pilot initiative with the UN Food and Agricultural Organization in Tajikistan, UNIFEM (now UN Women) supported the establishment of 16 District Task Forces (DTFs) on land-related issues in three provinces. The task forces provide legal advice on land rights, and rural women can also attend classes on leadership skills, cooperative formation, farm management and community activism.
From 2003 to 2008, the staff of the DTFs provided legal advice and practical assistance to approximately 14,000 rural women and men and conducted around 500 meetings and consultations in villages. As a result, the proportion of farms registered to women rose from 2 percent in 2002 to 14 percent in 2008. District-level governments are now funding the work of the DTFs through their own budgets — testimony to the success of this approach.