The Gender Equality Leap Forward: Monitoring and Advancing Women’s Land Rights through the SDGs

By Pranab Choudhury

Whether by law or customary practice, women continue to face barriers to their land and inheritance rights in more than half the world. Instead of enjoying equal and secure access to the land on which they live or from which they earn a livelihood, their only claim to land typically derives from a relationship to a male relative – a husband, father, or brother. Consequently, their rights to land can dissolve if that relationship changes — if a husband asks for a divorce, a father dies, or a brother migrates out of the area for work. This lack of tenure security undermines their economic and social empowerment.  Moreover, it holds back their families and broader societies.

Governments and policymakers have a unique opportunity to empower women financially and socially by ensuring that their rights to land are protected.  Providing women with secure rights to land has been shown to have a profound ripple effect on household income, food security, health, and other positive outcomes for women, their families, and communities. At the macro level, securing women’s land rights could stimulate entire economies, help grow a more food secure future, and even activate new allies in our response to climate change.

When the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in Sept. 2015, land rights were included in the targets on goals related to poverty, hunger, and gender equality.

Getting land rights targets into the 2030 Agenda was a major step forward.  Those targets, however, will be of questionable value without a way to measure progress toward the targets.  How can governments and the broader global development community move the needle forward on women’s land rights without a gauge — or without agreement on exactly what the gauge was to measure?

The land-related targets in the 2030 Agenda included three proposed indicators, but it is not yet clear that any of those three indicators will be meaningfully implemented.  The international body that determines which of the 240 SDG indicators should be prioritized – the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) – has a three-tier ranking system for determining whether a given indicator would be meaningfully implemented.  All three of the most meaningful land-related indicators are in Tier II status, which means governments have a green light to implement the methodology.  However, it will not become mandatory for governments to collect the data and monitor progress (Tier I status) unless the data are regularly produced by countries for at least 50 per cent of countries and of the population in every region, where the indicator is relevant, by 2020.

Moving the land-related indicators to the crucial Tier 1 status will require building consensus on the data definitions, sources, and system of reporting.

This is particularly relevant for the key indicator under the gender equality goal – Indicator 5a1.  This indicator would monitor  “(a) the proportion of total agricultural population with ownership or secure rights over agricultural land, by sex; and (b) share of women among owners or rights-bearers of agricultural land, by type of tenure.”

Moving Indicator 5a1 to Tier 1 status requires clarity and consensus on three key terms: “ownership or secure rights”, “agricultural land” and “agricultural population”, as well as an agreement on data sources to be used to measure. Fortunately, UNSTAT has prescribed definitions and methodology, drawing from the experience of a project piloted in seven countries – EDGE (Evidence and Data for Gender Equality).  However, it remains imperative for the women’s land rights community and relevant governmental statistical offices to build consensus on the definitions and how other big countries can use existing data sources for Indicator 5a1 if it is to be elevated to Tier I.

Delving into terms and definitions, ‘agricultural land’ defined as per the World Census of Agriculture 2020 excludes land under farm-buildings and yards, forestland and area used for aquaculture. This is unfortunate, as it would exclude millions of women and men dwelling in forests, whose rights over forestland are being now recognized, as they are individualized in India and China as well as in other parts of the world. It is important to note that India awards joint-titles- titles to woman and man in the household, over Individual Forest Rights.  It would be preferable to include such individualized forestland within the definition of agricultural land and those right holders within the definition of “agricultural population.”

To overcome the lack of an official definition for ‘agricultural population’, UNSTAT has proposed data collection at the household level. It suggests an adult (man or woman) individual as part of agriculture population, when the adult belongs to a household with at least one member mainly engaged in an agricultural work over the past 12 months, regardless the final purpose (whether for income-generation or self-consumption) and the status in employment. This would include agriculture labourer as part of the population.

In the context of land rights it suggests on one of three alternative proxies to qualify for ‘ownership or secure rights’: 1) Presence of legally recognised documents testifying security of tenure (bundle of rights including ownership, holding, tenancy etc.) over agricultural land; 2) the right to sell; or 3) the right to bequeath. EDGE tests have demonstrated the lack of reliability on reported ownership (or secure rights). In fact, reported ownership (or secure rights) was often neither supported by any kind of documentation nor by the possession of any alienation right.  As no single proxy is universally valid and it is important to consider individuals linked to the agricultural land by an objective right over it, (including both formal legal possession and alienation rights), consensus is required for considering a broader combination of proxies. It is important that the agreed approach on ‘ownership and secure rights’ over agriculture land is applicable to more countries with relevant data already available for reporting for indicator elevation.

Experts also need to come to a consensus on acceptable data sources for Indicator 5a1.  Numerous options exist.  UNSTAT prescribes national household surveys (viz. LSMS/DHS) as primary data sources with Population and Housing Censuses or Agricultural Surveys as alternate data sources.  UNWOMEN lists Agricultural census and surveys as primary data sources and mobile phone surveys and satellite imagery as potential alternative data sources.

Agriculture Censuses, which are carried out in 135 FAO member countries following uniform guidelines, are one of the potential data sources reporting operational holdings at household level with gender-disaggregation. However, as these agricultural censuses tend to exclude agricultural wage labourers, UNSTAT recommends only using this data source with the addition of a special module when other options are not available.  Discussions with Indian officials indicate the possibility of inclusion of such module including reporting of ownership data as per land records, which is already being collected. Another challenge is inclusion of land under farm buildings and yards within ‘operational holding’ when they are located within operated area in agriculture census, while ‘agricultural land’ definition excludes them.

However, FAO’s Gender and Land Rights Database, is already reporting women’s land rights for 104 countries, including big countries like India, Brazil and the USA, using Agriculture Census. Therefore, it could also be considered as a proxy to graduate to Tier I alone or in combination with other relevant data sources, which may help inclusion of missing elements like ‘agriculture labour’. While this seems to be a low hanging fruit for reaching Tier I, a consensus among reporting countries is required along with agreement on and availability of complimentary datasets.

Experience from a study in India also indicates the existence of other potential national datasets (Population Census and National Family Health Surveys) that are available in numerous countries as well as other India-specific databases (Socio-economic Caste Census, India Human Development Survey, NSSO) that could be used as proxies to report on Indicator 5a1, separately or in combinations.  However, these data sources collect information on different types of land rights with or without document verification, and do so at varying household, individual and parcel levels, highlighting the need for building consensus around such data divergences.

Growing demand for moving towards mixed data sources from sample survey paradigms, the increasing practice of shadow reporting of development indicators, and other existing alternate and complimentary options of reporting through unofficial and people-generated database (viz. Dashboard initiative of International Land Coalition), present additional options for gathering data relevant to Indicator 5a1 in order to move the indicator to Tier 1 status.

Less than two years remain to mobilize sufficient, relevant data collection to move Indicator 5a1 to Tier 1 status.  The task now before those who want to track progress on and advance women’s land rights is to help build consensus around data definitions and sources, and to strategically mobilize reporting, preferably from existing data sources, from populous countries across regions.

Pranab Choudhury is Vice President of the NRMC Center for Land Governance and a member of the Visiting Professionals Women’s Land Rights Network