This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post on November 24, 2014.
If we want to empower rural women in the developing world, there is no better first step than providing them with secure rights to land.
The reason is simple: developing world economies are agricultural economies. And in agricultural economies there is one key source of power, wealth, and security: land.
But most women in the developing world don’t have secure rights to land. Though they comprise almost half of the agricultural labor force, they don’t have legal control over their most important asset.
Often they can only gain access to land through a male relative – a father, a brother, a husband, an uncle.
Without legal control over the land they farm or the proceeds of their labor, women have neither the incentive, the security, nor opportunity to invest labor in the land to improve their harvests. They know that if they labor to irrigate their fields, or plant an orchard or other high value crop, there is a good chance that they will not be the ones to reap the benefits.
Studies confirm that women are routinely allocated the smallest and least productive plots. This impacts everything.
It impacts the way women farm. It impacts their ability to feed their children. It impacts their ability to leave abusive relationships. It impacts their ability to support themselves and work towards a better future.
This is why for more than four decades, Landesa has worked in more than 50 countries to improve land rights for more than 109 million families. We recognize that to improve food security and improve women’s status, we need to change women’s relationship to the land from farm laborer to farm owner and manager.
This is because land rights act as a gateway right. If women have secure rights to land they can enjoy a host of other benefits.
Women in Kenya tell us that once they have secure rights to land, they are considered full members of the community and are able to speak at public meetings.
Women in India tell us that once they have secure rights to land, they can access government services such as employment programs.
Women in Rwanda tell us that once they have secure rights to land, they gain a say in how their family resources are spent and can ensure that their children’s school fees are paid and their bellies are full.
Studies around the world have shown that children whose mothers have secure rights to land are less likely to be stunted and malnourished; more likely to be healthy and more likely to attend school.
This missing invisible infrastructure of transparent and functional land tenure systems doesn’t just frustrate women’s attempts to climb out of poverty or feed their family. It is at the root of so many of the greatest challenges that concern us today. Because the key to getting at poverty, hunger, conservation, and a host of other problems is establishing the legal and policy infrastructure that will encourage and empower families – and especially women – to think long-term and invest year to year, rather than survive day to day.
A woman with secure rights to land is a spark that can ignite change. She can feed children, educate the next generation, and help her community progress.