On Daughters and Dowries: How Land Rights Can Help Girls around the World

Land is a critical asset in rural areas, where three-quarters of the world’s poor reside. It can provide shelter, the ability to produce food, income, and access to credit and investment, and it is often the basis for entry into social and economic networks. When women and girls have secure rights to land, the whole household can benefit from higher income and better nutrition, education, and health. Unfortunately, in many parts of the developing world, there are many cultural and legal barriers to women and girls having secure rights to land.

In rural communities, land is typically transferred through marriage or inheritance. Yet, daughters often do not inherit their parents’ land because it is expected that they will move away from their fathers’ homes and into their husbands’ homes after marriage. These marriage practices also greatly impact a girl’s value to her family. For example, in India a daughter is often regarded as an economic burden, especially to poor and landless families, because it is customary that the family must pay dowry to her husband’s family for her to be married. Dowry is seen as paid in lieu of her inheritance. In fact, “it is estimated that the average dowry today is equivalent to five times the family’s annual income and that the high cost of weddings and dowries is a major cause of indebtedness among India’s poor.” Likewise, in many countries in Africa, a daughter’s value may depend on her ability to fetch a bride price, paid to her family by her husband’s family. In both cases, the daughter does not have access to the assets that were transferred for the marriage, leaving her beholden to her husband and his family for her wellbeing.

However, research shows that when women and their daughters gain secure rights to land and property the results are positive: an increase in net household income, increased expenditures on food and education, a decrease in the likelihood of domestic violence, and a greater chance of preventing HIV/AIDS infection.

The Nike Foundation, Omidyar Network, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Landesa (formerly the Rural Development Institute), through its Landesa Center for Women’s Land Rights, are addressing poor girls’ rights to land. By implementing programs in Asia and Africa to improve girls’ rights to land, daughters will have an economic asset and a resource to rely on for the well-being of themselves and their families. Secure rights to land will provide girls with a better chance of avoiding exploitation. In this first year of a more comprehensive multi-year initiative, the commitment partners are focusing on activities to strengthen girls’ land rights in India and Uganda.

In India, girls in poor families – especially in landless families – are at risk for early marriage because the practice can reduce or eliminate a dowry and the families’ daily economic obligations. Unfortunately, girls who find themselves in an abusive or exploitative situation may not be able to return home because their families lack the resources necessary to care for them, and they have no economic assets of their own.

Therefore, in West Bengal, India, the Landesa Center for Women’s Land Rights, with the support of the Nike Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is working closely with the government to prioritize landless families who have daughters and no sons, to receive government purchased micro-plots of land. The program is supporting these families by forming girls’ groups and working within the larger community to help all members of the community better understand the negative effect that early marriage, dowry, and lack of land rights have on a daughter’s status in the household, her education, and her economic security.

One adolescent girl from Coochbehar in West Bengal whose family received land was asked how her life has improved, and she responded: “We eat more times now, we grow vegetables, we continue to go to school, and we are happy.”

In northern Uganda, a 20-year long conflict caused many women and girls to lose access to the land they needed to support themselves and their families. Under customary law, land is managed and controlled by male clan members, and women are provided with access to land through the relationship with their male kin or husbands. When war and displacement disrupted those relationships, women and girls were left landless or with very insecure rights, often squatting on others’ land.

To address this, we are working with communities to help women and girls displaced by 20 years of civil war gain secure rights to land through an innovative “visioning” approach, developed by Ugandans. Groups of women and girls determine their aspirations related to land rights and identify steps necessary to achieve their desired outcome. Secure land rights will help improve the food security, health, and income of these marginalized women and girls, helping them to become self-reliant and reducing their vulnerability to HIV/AIDS.

For too long the prevailing wisdom has been that it’s simply too difficult to address deeply entrenched cultural practices which limit a girl’s access to important economic assets, including land. However, innovative programming designed to facilitate gender-equitable property rights in many parts of the world can change the life of a girl, a family, a village, and whole communities.

Our shared commitment is to further develop models that will address the complex issue of women and girls’ access and rights to land, regardless of their marital status.

Renée Giovarelli is the director of the Landesa Center for Women’s Land Rights.

The Landesa Center for Women’s Land Rights is supported by commitments by the Nike Foundation, Omidyar Network and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 The Hunger Project: http://www.thp.org/where_we_work/south_asia/india/research_reports/chronic_hunger_and_status_of_women

Renee Giovarelli

About Renee Giovarelli

Ms. Giovarelli is the Executive Director of the Landesa Center for Women’s Land Rights. She has more than 13 years of legal experience in the areas of land tenure and property rights. Her areas of specializations are intra-household and gender issues and customary land law. Giovarelli has designed and conducted fieldwork on women and their access and rights to land in the Kyrgyz Republic, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Russia, India, China, Uganda, Ghana, Madagascar, Burkina Faso, and Ethiopia. She was the team leader for a year-long study evaluating the impact of World Bank land projects on women in four key geographic regions (represented by Bolivia, Azerbaijan, Laos, and Ghana). Giovarelli has designed interventions to ensure that women are included in the governance and implementation of LTPR projects for USAID, MCC, and the World Bank. Giovarelli has a J.D. from Seattle University, and a master’s of law degree (LL.M.) in international sustainable development from the University of Washington.
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