BlogWomen's Land Rights

Jan 29 2015

Securing Land Rights Must be Key in UN Development Talks

This post was originally published by the Financial Times’ This is Africa Online.

In the week of 20 January, UN member states will begin the next phase of critically important negotiations on a new global framework for sustainable development to replace the expiring Millennium Development Goals. Secure land rights for women and men deserves special attention in this discussion.

The new framework, known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), will drive global priorities for individual member states and the global development community as a whole for the next fifteen years.

This is a historic opportunity to reexamine how to best address the most important and stubborn challenges facing the world today including poverty, hunger, food insecurity, gender inequality, conflict, and climate change.

Insecure land rights are a key trait shared by the majority of the world’s poorest. Their control over the land they rely on is precarious. Africa is particularly impacted. An estimated 90 percent of the continent’s rural land is currently untitled, leaving it vulnerable to expropriation by the powerful or to conflicting claims of ownership.

In many cases, land is held communally according to customary systems. However, few governments have yet to devise and implement adequate systems to harmonize customary claims with state legal frameworks.

Insecure land rights do not just frustrate the poor’s attempt to feed themselves and climb out of poverty. They are at the root of many of the vexing challenges that concern us today and can be a powerful first step towards addressing these challenges. The data on this is clear:

A study in Ethiopia found that families with fully secure and transferable rights had higher agricultural productivity and were 60 percent more likely to invest in terracing their land. What is more, households that perceived they had the right to mortgage or sell their land were more likely to invest in assets and activities, such as tree planting and terracing, that enhance future productivity.

In Brazil,  a study found that land with more securely held rights sustained less deforestation. And a study in Argentina found that children in families with secure rights to land had better educational outcomes.

The benefits of securing land rights for women in particular are noteworthy for their ripple effects. A study in Tanzania found that women with secure rights to land earn three times more income.  In India, women with secure rights to land are eight times less likely to experience domestic violence. Another study in Nepal found that children whose mothers have secure rights to land are 33 percent less likely to be malnourished.

Recognition of the interrelation between women’s empowerment and land issues was made explicit by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in his 2014 report. In the document, he maintained that “[w]omen and girls must have equal access to financial services and the right to own land and other assets”.

Providing clear and secure rights for poor rural women, men and communities also makes for a better investment climate. When land rights are uncertain and insecure, the business community loses as well.  

Headlines about “land grabs” by foreign companies in the developing world and examples like Tata’s beleaguered investment  in India’s West Bengal region show just how critical secure land rights are to any long term investment. This remains true whether it is a farmer’s decision to plant an orchard, or a company’s  decision to establish a factory or invest in agricultural production.

Recognition of secure land rights’ crucial role in sparking broad sustainable development, and women’s economic empowerment in particular, is growing. Throughout the discussions to develop the SDGs, world leaders have characterized this issue as a key element of any future efforts to achieve development goals on a global scale.

A number of countries  – including Rwanda, India, and Kenya, to name a few – have recently made noteworthy progress on improving secure land rights for their own people. The strides made in these countries illustrate that strengthening land rights can be done – and in a cost effective manner.

In the past, secure land rights were often overlooked by the development community, in large part because they are an invisible part of the infrastructure of a prosperous society.  Security of tenure is hard to see and a challenge to measure.

However, despite these obstacles land rights must be at the forefront of the global development agenda going forward.

Metrics are already being developed that could help standardize land rights’ security. While there is currently no universally accepted measure, there are a number of specific measurable and achievable standards that have been proposed. Examples include measuring the percent of women and the percent of men that have documented evidence of secure land rights, as well as the percentages who perceive that their land rights are secure.

Data disaggregated by gender is key to ensuring that women are not left behind while the head of household, usually a man, is provided with secure rights. This can unintentionally exacerbate the gender gap and undermine women’s economic empowerment.

Gender disaggregated data on land rights will prove critical to measuring our progress. This information coupled with a renewed focus on the centrality of secure property rights for the poor – whether as individuals or communities – will go a long way towards informing national agricultural development priorities, poverty alleviation strategies, food security initiatives, women’s economic empowerment efforts and a host of other critical endeavors.

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