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.
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).
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:
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.