The Council on Foreign Relations Development Channel recently posted an exciting article by Stephanie Hanson of the One Acre Fund on empowering female smallholder farmers. The article highlighted four obstacles women farmers in the developing world face: poor quality seed and no fertilizer, no access to credit, limited education and training, and no access to markets. We at Landesa agree strongly with this assessment. However, we would add one fundamental obstacle that presents a significant burden for women across the developing world: their lack of secure land rights to the land they rely on.
The fact is that women make up only a fraction of the agricultural landholders in most developing regions. In fact, the number is often less than 5 percent and generally less than 20 percent. This means the overwhelming majority of women farmers in the developing world don’t have secure rights to the land they till.
As Hanson’s article points out, women are often unable to access credit in rural communities because they do not have a formal title to their land. In fact, studies have shown that women with land rights are more likely to receive credit.
However, secure land rights mean more than just access to credit. When women have secure rights to the land they use, they have incentives to make the land more productive with, for instance, better seeds and fertilizer. In Rwanda, a study found that women are the primary farmers but are granted only temporary, insecure use rights to the land they farm. These weak land rights contribute to a lack of investment in land that has led to severe problems with soil erosion. Furthermore, women with secure rights tend to practice traditional conservation methods, such as mulching and intercropping.
In many countries government services cannot be accessed without a title deed. In India, for example, the government provides many agricultural extension services, from education to seeds to fertilizer, but only if the recipient has a land title. And as we know, the vast majority of women don’t have a title and therefore can’t access these services. In fact, in India,women own less than 10 percent of the land.
When women have secure rights to land, it also improves their status in both their households and their communities. This enhanced status can empower women to participate more effectively and fully in community-level organizations, such as collectives that negotiate with traders, making those institutions more responsive to women’s needs.
Improved status can also render women less vulnerable to domestic violence. A study in India indicates that women who own land or a house face a significantly lower risk of marital violence.
Furthermore, these benefits accrue to the next generation. Women with land rights contribute a greater proportion of their own income to the household and exercise greater control over the household’s agricultural income in general, according to a study in Nicaragua and Honduras. They are also more likely to spend these funds on food for the family, leading to better nutrition for children. In fact, a study in Nepal found that the odds that a child is severely underweight are reduced by half if the mother owns land. Furthermore, when women in the household have land rights, as the Nicaragua and Honduras study found, children are more likely to go to school and have higher levels of educational attainment.
Organizations must recognize the importance of targeting women and tailor their programs to meet their needs, as One Acre Fund does so admirably. However, secure rights to land are of fundamental importance to women smallholders. In many ways they are a foundational first step. Organizations looking to help women farmers would enhance their impact by incorporating this issue.