Land Ownership for Women: The Importance of Economic Empowerment

The Open Society Institute released a brief titled “Securing Women’s Land and Property Rights: A Critical Step to Address HIV, Violence and Food Security.” The brief examines the way in which women’s property and land rights can enable women to have greater autonomy, greater control over their relationships, and improve their ability to provide food for themselves and their families. It summarizes the work of several organizations on this very important issue, and then provides some recommendations. Please read it, even if you’re not particularly concerned with the fate of women in other countries. Autonomy, economic empowerment and ownership matter everywhere.

In many parts of the world, women have fewer rights of ownership than men, are subjected to discriminatory attitudes and practices, and even if they have declared rights, securing them can be difficult if not impossible. Since land resources are highly contested in many places, large-scale land acquisitions often removes women farmers from their land. Citing several reports, the brief points out that women who are unable to maintain their autonomy through ownership are economically disempowered. These women are also at greater risk for HIV, AIDS, and abusive relationships. Intimate partner violence is an important part of this story. Being able to own land provides women with the ability to control their own housing and food, while also allowing them to maintain independence from their husbands and fathers. Taken together, property and land ownership can not only allow women to avoid situations in which they may be subjected to violence and put them at risk of contracting HIV or AIDS, it also provides them with a greater ability to cope with disease and violence when it does occur. 

In many ways we should not be surprised that economic empowerment is tied to ownership and property, and that health and food security are connected to both. But what is important here is to recognize that ownership is not an option for women in many places in the world. And in some places, the idea of women owning much of anything (let alone enough land to grow food for both their families and to sell for profit) is a radical concept. We sometimes take it for granted in the US, but we should not. Even here there are places where ownership is difficult for women, and women farmers face many obstacles in the form of discriminatory practices and local customs in their communities that make it difficult for them to farm successfully. But if we take seriously the idea that autonomy and the ability to decide for yourself what you want to do is fundamental to humanity, then it is also important to understand that one of the most basic rights we can grant people to help themselves is the ability to own land and produce food from it. Along with the right, however, has to come the practices that allow women to exercise ownership. That can be difficult all over the world.