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India’s murky inheritance laws reinforce gender discrimination, undermine women’s land rights
A complex web of national, state, and personal laws govern inheritance rights in India, leaving many women unable to claim their share of agricultural land – despite guarantees enumerated in the Hindu Succession Act. A new report outlines a number of Indian states where vague or contradictory laws governing the succession and transfer of agricultural land reinforce gender discrimination and undermine women’s land rights.
Landesa, the international land rights organization, recently published Gender Inequality in Inheritance Laws: The Case of Agricultural Land in India, which explores the legal complexities related to inheritance of agricultural land by women in India. The legal analysis reveals several states where laws governing inheritance of agricultural land are inconsistent with – or contradict – legal provisions for the inheritance of non-agricultural land and property. Because inheritance is one of the most common ways that an individual can own or access land, property, and resources, it must be said that the status of women’s rights to land in India is thus incomplete. This leaves millions of rural women without access to a critical tool for economic and social empowerment, in a country where agriculture remains the backbone of the rural economy.
Within India’s legal framework, different aspects of land governance fall under the purview of India’s central government and its various state governments. Most significantly, while central and state governments share jurisdiction over the succession and transfer of non-agricultural land, transfer of agricultural land is governed exclusively at the state level. The resulting disharmony between state agricultural laws and personal laws governing inheritance sows confusion and uncertainty over women’s rights to inherit agricultural land.
To ensure gender equality in inheritance, Landesa recommends a thorough gender review of all inheritance laws – including personal, state, and customary laws. India’s central government could facilitate such a review by appointing a commission on Women’s Land and Property Inheritance. Such a commission would be tasked with conducting a gender analysis of relevant inheritance laws and collaborating with states to encourage and amend state laws that grant inferior inheritance rights to women and girls.
Such efforts would necessarily require intensive efforts to sensitize political leaders, bureaucrats, and judicial officers toward recognizing women’s claims as lawful and just, as these stakeholders would be critical allies in implementing inheritance law reform. At the same time, women’s voices must also be represented, through initiatives to raise awareness of inheritance rights among women and communities.
Secure rights to land, including equality in inheritance, are paramount for women to unlock opportunities for economic and social empowerment, and elevate their status in households and communities.