Keynote address for Seed the Change, March 15, 2011

This Land Is My Land: Land Rights for Women’s Empowerment

By Geeta Rao Gupta

For as long as I can remember, my mother, Sarah, cherished the dream that someday she and my father would jointly own a plot of land and on that land they would build themselves a little home of their own. But despite years of hard work in government jobs in India they were unable to fulfill that dream.

In large measure it was because in addition to providing the best education they could for their three children, they had taken on the responsibility of looking after their extended family’s financial needs. But till the day she died my mother never gave up that dream. Even during the last chapter of her career, when she and my father worked in a village in India to empower girls and young women, she eyed local land for its potential to be hers – but deemed it unsuitable because it was two continents away from her beloved grandchildren.

And so it was that in retirement, when she and my father came to live with us here in the US, despite my protests, she would repeatedly fill out the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes entry forms and buy lottery tickets, waiting eagerly to become a millionaire so that she could buy that land before she died. I once asked her why she wanted land and a home of her own – did she not have enough? After all she had retired after a successful career as a physician and public health specialist, had three wonderful children and a husband who doted on her – why her need for land and a home of her own?  Her prompt response surprised me: it would be her own little place, to do with whatever she wanted. Somehow, despite all that she had, the sense of independence, security and identity that comes from owning a place of one’s own was what my mother craved.

That is the elemental power of land of one’s own. For women like my mother, it is a symbol of individual identity and independence. For poor women who suffer the indignities and injustices of their gender and class, land is an economic asset that can serve as a source of food and livelihood; as collateral for a loan; it can provide security against economic shocks; shelter from what can sometimes be a threatening world; and perhaps, most importantly, it allows women to bargain and negotiate from a position of economic strength. In short, for poor women secure land tenure or ownership is a pathway to equality and empowerment and a true and trusted way to break the vicious cycle of intergenerational poverty.

Landesa’s work is based on a recognition of these truths. For the past 43 years it has championed the power of land rights as a key to a better and safer future for the poor and has worked to guarantee safe and secure rights to land for the poor in India, China and many countries in Africa. And in 2009, Landesa inaugurated its Center for Women’s Land Rights because when women have secure rights to land either independently or through joint titling with their men, there is an extraordinary ripple effect that spreads to their families, communities and beyond. It is empowering and beneficial to women themselves as well as to their children, households and the broader economy. Let me explain how.

As mothers, food producers, processors, and providers, and as income earners (and increasingly as the sole economic providers of a large number of households), women are disproportionately responsible for the survival and well-being of poor households.  They produce more than half of the food in Latin America and South Asia, and 80 percent of it in sub-Saharan Africa.  They supply the labor for agricultural production, fetch water, gather fuelwood, cook for the family, sell surplus produce, and serve as the key frontline health and nutrition providers for infants and children, as well as the sick and elderly.  And data gathered through robust studies conducted almost two decades ago, shows that income in the hands of women rather than in the hands of men, results in relatively greater welfare outcomes for children – improved education, nutrition, and health.

It is no surprise then that providing women with a productive piece of land is an investment with a very high rate of return. It generates beneficial outcomes not just for women but for their families, communities and entire economies. To put it simply, when we empower a woman, we unlock opportunity for all.

Take the example of Lakshmi in Andhra Pradesh, India, who at the impossibly young age of 10 became a bride. Soon after that she became a mother and then a young widow. She knew that her work as a daily laborer in others’ fields destined her and her daughter to a life of poverty. But a program designed by Landesa, in partnership with the World Bank and the state government of Andhra Pradesh, provided her a way out. The program provided women’s self-help groups the opportunity to buy heavily subsidized farmland. Working in the landlord’s field, Lakshmi managed to save two rupees (five cents) a day.

“I knew it’s going to benefit me and my daughter in the future…and I was right”

With her savings, Lakshmi joined other women in her village and bought a plot of land through the Landesa program.  And then they did what any of the women in this room would have done. They got to work.

The women divided the land into modest individual plots. Lakshmi produces two crops of vegetables a year and keeps a water buffalo on her plot. The buffalo produces 11 liters of milk in a day. Lakshmi sells 9 liters and keeps the rest for her family. This income has allowed her to fund her daughter’s education all the way through college. And the income allowed Lakshmi to ensure that her daughter married late and married well. Now, Lakshmi’s dairy business is helping fund her grandchildren’s education.

“We used to eat one meal in a day….When I look back, I feel it’s a miracle that we survived. Today, we live with dignity,” said Lakshmi.

Across Andhra Pradesh, between 2004 and 2009, more than 5,300 women benefited like Lakshmi and together they gained ownership of more than 4,500 acres of land as part of Landesa’s partnership with the state government. All of those women now have just the leg-up they need to climb out of poverty. Secure ownership of land will likely improve their agricultural productivity, allowing them to feed their children vegetables and a well rounded diet. The land also provides them an avenue to earn more money and even carve out some for savings in case of an emergency like an unexpected health challenge or a violent storm.  And even modest profits allow these women to save for their children’s education. As a result, their families are healthier, more secure, and the community as a whole becomes stronger and more prosperous.

And in sub-Saharan Africa, in countries that have been hard-hit by the AIDS epidemic, I have personally seen how secure land rights for women together with their men also serves to protect them and their families from the potentially devastating consequences of HIV. In fact, I have come to believe that guaranteeing women land tenure should be considered not just an economic intervention but a public health intervention and should be supported through health budgets! Let me explain.

Women whose husbands or fathers fall sick and die of AIDS, or women who are sick themselves, often find themselves in a very precarious economic situation. They often lose their homes, inheritance, possessions and livelihoods either because of “property grabbing” by relatives and community members, with no accessible legal recourse to regain their ownership of that property; or because the law of their land does not give women the right to own or inherit land or housing. Thrust into these precarious economic situations, women and girls may be forced into risky behavior, such as selling sex for an income, just to meet their own and their children’s basic needs for food, shelter and clothing – thereby perpetuating an endless cycle of infection, disease and death.

For example, a study conducted in Botswana and Swaziland showed that women who reported lacking sufficient food to eat had an 80 percent increased probability of selling sex for money or resources; a 70 percent increased probability of engaging in unprotected sex and a 50 percent increased probability of engaging in sex with a much older man – all of which increases their risk of HIV.

And we have also known for many years that control over land gives women greater bargaining power within households — and that power we are learning can help to protect women against the risk of domestic violence. A study conducted in Kerala, India found that 49 percent of women with no property reported physical violence as compared to only 7 percent of women who owned property. ICRW explored this relationship further through research undertaken in Sri Lanka and India and found that land ownership is more likely to act as a protective factor against domestic violence when the land that is owned is productive, accessible to the woman and has the ability to enhance the economic base of the household.

Thus, owning the right kind of land has the potential to empower women. It allows women to leave a risky relationship or negotiate protection without fear of abandonment, hunger or destitution and provides them with the economic cushion to negotiate their own needs and shape their own destinies.

So there are indisputable benefits to women’s secure land tenure for women themselves, for their families, and for economic development overall. Yet, it is estimated that less than 2 percent of women worldwide own land. The strength of the law guaranteeing property rights varies greatly across the developing world but even where it is strong, it is rarely enforced in a clear and impartial way. Practically speaking, then, despite some great laws on the books, a vast number of families lack confidence that they have legal control over their most fundamental asset. Land reform, to make tenure more secure and clear – to protect individuals from forcible evictions and to give individuals the right to control, use and sell land as they deem necessary, is what is needed.

An essential ingredient to succeed is to work with governments to implement the change. Landesa has mastered that approach and uses it repeatedly to slowly but surely put in place solutions that can rapidly be brought to scale within the legal and political imperatives of each country.

For example, in China, Landesa has been working since 1987 to find a way to provide farming families with security and ownership-like benefits – a delicate task considering that within a communist system villages control land use and the government owns the land.

Land tenure rights within such a system may seem like an oxymoron. But Landesa has partnered with the Chinese government and found a way. Under the new system, Chinese farmers are provided with  30-year rights to their individual plots, with certificates and contracts from local authorities that spell out those rights.

What Landesa has found is that farmers in China who receive these certificates and contracts guaranteeing their rights are more than twice as likely to invest in their land. Thus far, more than 80 million farming families have benefited,  investing in and make improvements in their land  and increasing their harvests, with the security of knowing that the land won’t be reassigned to another family or confiscated.

All of this is encouraging, but it’s important to underscore a larger point: the largest movement of people out of poverty in the history of the world has happened in the last 30 years in China. Why? The World Bank and others confirm it’s largely due to smart land reform policies like the ones Landesa has helped to craft. In just six years after rural land reform policies were enacted in the early 1980s, more than 300 million rural Chinese people pulled themselves out of poverty.

So even in places like China, Landesa has shown that land tenure reform can be achieved, and when it does it transforms the lives of millions of poor families by increasing their agricultural productivity, incomes, investments in children’s education and health, and most importantly, their hope for a brighter future.

Most governments recognize the transformative potential of land tenure reform and how essential it is for long-term growth, stability and development. It is the cornerstone of all that needs to be achieved; it is the single most necessary structural and institutional change required to move a country up the economic development ladder. And as I have shown, when it benefits women, it is the most efficient investment you can make because it gives you the biggest bang for your buck.

I recognized this as I worked for women’s rights across the developing world. I realized that without joint titling to land that women farm or a title deed to the house they live in, opportunities for growth and development were often not utilized nor maximized.

But I also saw how difficult it was to make it happen. Land reform challenges the existing power balance between the rich and the poor, between women and men.  Shifting land tenure in favor of women and the poor challenges the status quo in a fundamental way and is often a contentious issue because politically vested interests have much to gain from opposing the reform.  It requires normative, structural and institutional change. Which is why in addition to changes in policies and laws through governmental action, land reform requires community involvement and buy-in.

The Landesa team recognizes this. By acting at multiple levels simultaneously, at the policy level and within communities, and by strategically taking advantage of economic and political windows of opportunity, no matter how small, they get the job done and make it look easy!

Ultimately, I believe that land reform is core to our views of economic and social justice – core to our views of women’s and men’s roles in society and our notions of equality. I remember once having a conversation with senior medical and policy experts from India about women’s vulnerability in the AIDS epidemic; discussing how women’s economic dependence makes it difficult for them to negotiate protection against HIV, and quite innocently and casually saying that the only way out is to ensure that women and girls have equal inheritance and property rights. The response I got still haunts me today. A senior policy maker at the table said: You are more likely to get an AIDS vaccine than equal property rights for women in India – and then he and others proceeded to tell me how daughters were looked after in other ways, through dowry, how they did not need to actually inherit property equally, etc. That conversation underscored for me what I have felt for quite a while: the best way to bring about the kind of attitudinal and normative change where everyone accepts that men and women should be equal partners; where equality of opportunity is considered to be essential for progress – the best way to do that is to start at the beginning: during early adolescence, as attitudes and beliefs are being formed and solidified.

The most sustainable way to bring about that kind of normative change is to shape their thinking and attitudes of young people, to make the effort to ensure that they see the world in a more gender-equitable way, to get their support for changes in laws to give daughters the same inheritance rights to land as sons. With support from the Nike Foundation, Landesa is experimenting with this in West Bengal.

There Landesa is working closely with the government to prioritize landless families who have daughters and no sons, to receive government purchased micro-plots of land – but perhaps more importantly, the program is facilitating conversations with groups of girls and boys, as well as with the larger community, to help all members of the community better understand the negative effect that lack of land rights have on a daughter’s status in the household, her education, and her economic security – and the implications of that for families and community.

Thinking about those daughters in West Bengal and the effort it takes to ensure that they have equality in inheritance rights, makes me particularly grateful that my daughter, Nayna, who is currently studying to be a lawyer, is guaranteed the right to own a piece of land that is her very own.  And when she does, I have no doubt that my mother, from somewhere out there, will watch with great pride. But given my mother’s work and commitment to improving the future for girls and young women in poor communities, I have a feeling that the only true way to honor my mother’s dream is to ensure that daughters everywhere have the right to own land.  And that is what I hope Landesa will continue to focus on in the years to come – because it is the only way to achieve the vision for the world we all want to build — a world in which girls and boys, women and men will share equally in the enjoyment of basic rights and capabilities – a world in which women and men will be free of the fear of violence and have an equal voice in shaping their future destinies – a world in which women and men will share in the care of children and the sick, the responsibility for paid employment and the joys of leisure.

On this 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day, our collective challenge is to work together toward that vision – to unlock opportunity for daughters throughout the world through the transformative power of land ownership. In doing so, I’m confident these daughters will amaze us, and help create a brighter future for generations to come.

Thank you!