Most of the world’s poorest citizens share four traits:
- They live in rural areas.
- They depend on the land to survive.
- They don’t have legal control over the land.
- They are women.
The problem is that when leaders in government, civil society, and the private and nonprofit sectors gather together to discuss hunger and malnutrition there is one important subject that is rarely on the agenda, but should be: Women’s land rights.
If we are going to address hunger and malnutrition and generational poverty, we need to talk to and about the insecure land rights of people in the conundrum outlined above: poor, rural, women.
Consider the case of India, with its robust GDP rates and growing middle class, and innovative poverty alleviation programs. It is hard to imagine why its malnutrition rates have remained stubbornly high.
There is growing evidence that the reason for India’s malnourished children is not just empty pockets — it is, specifically, women’s empty pockets. Women in India have a lower status and therefore less control over resources, both land and money, and consequently do not have the leverage to ensure that their children’s needs are met.
A variety of research shows that women are critical to solving the hunger problem.
While male farmers may focus on cash crops, women more often focus on growing crops that provide their family with good nutrition. There is an increasing body of research that confirm the ripple effect. A study in Nepal found that children are less likely to be underweight if their mothers own land. Another, in Nicaragua and Honduras, presented at the World Bank, found that families spend more on food when the woman of the house owns land. And a study in Ghana found that families allocate larger proportion of their household budget to food when the woman owns a larger share of the household’s farmland.
Understanding this allows India to craft targeted and effective responses to their malnutrition crisis. Because, although government programs that provide free food and vitamins will surely help, what may prove more effective and sustainable in the long term is improving the status of women and expanding their access to resources — especially land.
Across India, national and some state governments are recognizing this and are working to put a powerful asset — land — into the hands of women. Such programs should be praised and, more important, replicated and expanded.
The State of Odisha, for example, is opening dozens of Women’s Support Centers to ensure that women gain title to a small plot of land they can live on and farm. West Bengal now ensures that women’s names are on all the land titles they distribute in their micro-plot poverty alleviation program.
And it is not just India that is boosting women’s land rights for the greater good. Kenya, for example, passed a new constitution in 2010 that provides women with unprecedented rights and protections including equal rights to own, inherit, and manage family resources including land. A follow up pilot project funded by USAID illustrated that when these rights were embraced and promoted by tribal elders in remote rural areas, women were able to exert more control over family resources and better meet their children’s needs. The area secondary school, for example, reported record numbers of girls enrolling. And women in the area reported reduced violence against women.
Such programs need to be expanded and replicated. It will allow women to fill their pockets, cooking pots and children’s bellies — a bumper harvest for their families and communities.