Women’s landownership: Why we need to set the record straight

This blog was originally posted on the CGIAR Development Dialogues 2014 website and is an entry for the "Talking Science" competition

Advocacy and development organizations often cite claims that “women own less than one percent of world property.” The Atlantic, tracing the claim back to a 1978 journal published by the International Labour Organization, referred to it as “the feminist myth that won’t die.” The intent of this claim is to promote women’s property rights by highlighting alarming inequalities. But perpetuating such myths actually hinders efforts to increase gender equality in control over land and other property.

Why can’t we make such claims? In a recent study, researchers from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM) asked whether an empirically-based statistic on women’s landownership in Africa could be produced. While they come up with measures for several countries, the data to create a global or African measure are lacking.

This is because most large-scale data collection efforts on landownership simply ask if each household owns land. They have not typically gathered information on who in the household owns the land, or how much land area is owned, rendering it impossible to develop statistics about women’s landownership.

Claims about women’s landownership also raise a number of conceptual and methodological issues. First, ownership has different meanings in different contexts, from the name on a title deed to the person who controls family land. Second, the unit of analysis matters. Do we care about the percentage of women who own land? The percentage of landholders who are women? Or the percentage of land area owned by women? These measures are very different.

Comparable statistics are also needed for men. The Gender Asset Gap Project finding that seven percent of women in Ecuador own land takes on a very different interpretation when we know that seven percent of men own land. We might also ask how much land is owned jointly by couples or by clans, tribes, institutions, or governments.

The available data lend credence to the existence of widespread gender inequalities in the ownership and control of land. But there is insufficient evidence to develop a single statistic on women’s landownership on a global or even regional scale. Attempting to do so also masks substantial variations across regions and within countries. For example, the FAO’s Gender and Land Rights Database reports that the percentage of agricultural holders who are women varies from a low of 3.1 in Mali to a high of 50.5 in Cape Verde. According to the study on women’s landownership in Africa, only 20 African countries have any nationally representative or large sample survey data on women’s landownership or management. Recent analysis suggests that even fewer Asian countries collect such data.

Mounting evidence demonstrates that securing women’s property rights contributes to decreased poverty and vulnerability, increased environmental sustainability, and investments in the next generation. Without understanding the extent of gender inequalities in land rights, policymakers cannot articulate or monitor a policy response. Several of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) proposed by the United Nations Open Working Group (OWG) focus on achieving secure and equal rights and access to land for men and women. But how will we know whether we have reached these goals by 2030 if we do not know how many men and women currently have land rights?

The OWG acknowledges the importance of increasing the availability of data disaggregated by sex, age, income, and other characteristics to monitor the implementation of the SDGs. But we often hear arguments that collecting sex-disaggregated data is simply too expensive. While gathering data for a full gender analysis may be costly, it is possible to generate a wealth of information by making minor alterations to existing surveys.

As we point out in a document on standards for collecting sex-disaggregated data, changing a question from “Does your household own land?” to “Who in the household owns land?” will vastly enhance our understanding of gender inequalities in landownership. Although this would not facilitate an in-depth understanding of the relationship between gender and land rights in a given context, it would increase the empirical evidence on this topic. Additional questions on who holds the legal rights through a title or registration document and whether the rights are secure add only modest costs and greatly enhance our knowledge of men’s and women’s tenure security.

While data collection issues do not often take center stage in development debates, the availability of individual-level data on land rights will play an essential role in our ability to close the gender gap in agriculture. The existence of significant gender inequalities in land rights is irrefutable. But without better data on the patterns of landownership by men and women, it will be impossible to develop or monitor evidence-based policies and programs to redress these disparities.

Blogpost by Cheryl Doss (Senior Lecturer in African Studies and Economics at Yale University and Leader of cross-cutting gender research, CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions and Markets – PIM) – Cheryl.doss(at)yale.edu and
Caitlin Kieran (Senior Research Assistant on Gender, PIM) – C.Kieran(at)cgiar.org

Photo courtesy Landesa


This post is entry nr #25 in our #CGIAR_DD “Talking Science” blog competition for CGIAR and partner scientists. The winners will be selected through votes received from you, the online readers.
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