Opportunity and Inclusion
Property and assets
Ownership of and rights over property and assets such as land, housing, and livestock
© Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation | Mulugeta Ayene | Woman tending a corn plot in Guraghe Zone, Ethiopia | 2016
How property and assets support women's economic empowerment
How property and assets produce further benefit
At present, more research is needed to understand the impacts of women’s improved land tenure security on other outcomes. While many studies have shown positive correlations between women’s land tenure security and food security, family health and welfare, and reductions in gender-based violence (as demonstrated in the studies presented below), experimental and quasi-experimental research in these areas is lacking or shows mixed results.

Tenure reform represents a critical mechanism for increasing women’s ownership of property and assets. These programs can be divided into two broad categories:

Reform efforts to redistribute land more equitably

Tenure security reforms that aim to clarify and strengthen the rights of existing landholders

Both types of programs need to provide for formal gender equality while also considering how existing norms and customs might result in unintended negative consequences. Thoughtful design that attends to prevailing norms can make a significant difference. In several cases, land titling programs have been able to offset gender inequalities resulting from the conflict between formal law and customary practice.

  • In Rwanda, the original design of formal land registration only recognized formal marriages, which excluded many women in customary unions, especially poor women. When the initiative was expanded to include customary unions, many more women were included.
  • In Ethiopia, a 2003 land titling program mandated that, in some regions, titling should be in the name of both the husband and wife jointly, resulting in much higher probability that the woman’s name appeared on the title compared to the regions without such requirements. Ensuring that there was sufficient space for two names on the form also made a difference.
  • Price incentives can be used to encourage households to co-title the land with women. In Tanzania, where women’s formal ownership rights are guaranteed by law but their de facto rights over land remain weak, evidence suggests that very small price incentives can nudge households to co-title the land with women.
  • In Laos, the national Women’s Union worked to train field and local staff on gender-sensitive practices, ensure that women and men attended public meetings, held separate meetings for women, and conducted general awareness-raising campaigns to explain the importance of women’s participation in the program. With these practices in place, women almost doubled their share of sole ownership and more than tripled joint ownership of marital property.

Meanwhile, national policies governing property ownership and inheritance—including laws about inheritance, marital property, and community allocation of land—can be revised to better support women’s rights (or at the very least avoid overt gender-based discrimination).

Land regularization in India
National land policy reform in Rwanda
Behavioral nudges for spousal land registration in Uganda
Is there a case for action?

Numerous studies have demonstrated that women’s ownership of and control over property and assets contributes to a wide range of positive development outcomes for women and their families. However, women in developing countries represent a small percentage of land owners, despite accounting for a sizable proportion of the agricultural labor pool. In many cases, women’s rights to land exist only through relationship with a man (e.g., father, husband, son) and they can lose these rights if that relationship ends due to death, divorce, or abandonment.

The two primary avenues for securing access to and control over property and assets—inheritance and community allocation—are shaped by social norms and traditions that have long excluded women. Inheritance is the most common method of land acquisition for women, but men are far more likely to inherit property. Furthermore, in many African communities custom dictates that men receive land through familial lineage; because wives are not considered part of the lineage, they do not have rights to land. Other means of acquiring property such as purchase on the open market and land leasing are unaffordable for most rural women.

Meanwhile, land title formalization programs and other efforts to make land more productive often allow men to assert greater control over the land to the detriment of women. Prevailing gender norms can undermine women’s ability to take advantage of land titling efforts due to fear of social stigma and backlash from family members.

There is a growing global consensus that securing rights to property and assets for women and men can play an intrinsic role in eradicating poverty, reducing gender inequality, and fostering global prosperity more broadly. Some nations have taken steps to secure these rights via international treaty. One example is the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (also known as the Maputo Protocol), which was developed after years of activism by women’s rights supporters in the region. This formal guarantee of women’s rights went into effect in 2005 and has been ratified by 36 of the 54 nations in the African Union. The protocol calls for African Union member states to:

  • Allow for equitable sharing of joint property deriving from marriage in the event of separation, divorce, or annulment (Article 7)
  • Give women access to clean drinking water, domestic fuel, land, and the means of producing nutritious food (Article 15)
  • Promote women’s access to and control over productive resources such as land and guarantee their right to property (Article 19)
  • Provide for inheritance by widows and daughters (Article 21)

However, treaties and legislation can only go so far. Effective interventions will need to take into account the complex and at times contradictory statutes, customs, and norms that affect women’s ability to own property and assets. For example, thoughtful, gender-aware design of land titling programs has helped reduce gender inequalities arising from the conflict between formal law and customary practice. Investment in research about what works can accelerate progress on women’s ability to own and benefit from property and assets.

© Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation | Prashant Panjiar | Members of the Kajoli Agro Farm collective in Nilphamari, Bangladesh | 2009