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.

Cancer Clusters and Radiation in Coldwater Creek

I have been following the story of a possible cancer cluster along Coldwater Creek just outside St. Louis for a while now. That’s because my former colleague, neighbor and friend, Scott McClurg, is the lead plaintiff in a case filed in 2012. He and his other plaintiffs allege in the lawsuit that nuclear waste sites near the airport contaminated Coldwater Creek, a stream in the area where they played as children, grew up, and in some cases raised their own families. This contamination, the plaintiffs believe, is the cause of their illnesses, which include cancers and autoimmune disorders.

There are many, many facets of this story that are remarkable. For example, a group of high school friends coming together, discussing their illnesses and realizing that a surprisingly large number of cases of rare cancers and autoimmune disorders existed among them. Then, they mobilized legally, did some organizing and have been using Facebook to collect data concerning their illnesses. This is the sort of court case with human dimensions to it that will become a book one day. Certainly, at the moment, it is getting some very well-deserved press.

The most remarkable part of this story for me is not so dramatic. The most remarkable part is simply Scott McClurg.  Here he is, fighting his cancer while at the epicenter of all of this legal action, taking care of his family in the midst of maintaining a very busy career, and still he was the neighbor who went over to my home while I was away at Thanksgiving to shovel my stoop.

So I wanted to do a brief post with a few links to the story for readers who might not otherwise see it. Theres been some more recent coverage, too. I also want to signal here that we will be expanding a bit in our posts at DPP. We will consciously look for more environmental justice stories, i.e., court cases and political actions in which neighbors come together to maintain a clean and healthy community. We will discuss this complex area of case-law, and explore how environmental justice and property politics are often intertwined. Specific environmental justice actions are not always apparent when you do not live in the communities where they are taking place, but the law and politics of property and disasters are always best understood in context. Therefore, please email me if theres something youd like me to consider writing about (