Women’s land rights on paper are not enough

Pubudini Wickramaratne Gender, Land rights

Land is critical to our daily lives. It is intrinsically linked with our identity, dignity, livelihoods, food, housing, education and health. Secure land rights are essential to sustainable and equitable economic development as well as to social and political development. This holds true, especially for women.

 For women to have secure land rights, the legal and policy framework must recognise their equal rights to own, control and inherit land. It is equally important that these frameworks are properly implemented and actioned at the ground level.

Oxfam recently published five papers on land rights which were submitted to the World Bank Land and Poverty Conference 2020. These papers will be discussed through a series of three blogs. This blog focuses on aspects of women’s land rights discussed in three papers on Myanmar, Sri Lanka and seven African countries

These papers highlight the importance of having a strong legal framework coupled with effective implementation in the ground to protect women’s land rights. In this blog we look at three areas the papers highlighted:

– Gender-discriminatory provisions in  land rights law
– Lack of awareness of land rights laws at the ground level
– Women’s ability to assert control over land due to the law

The legal framework on Land Rights

The papers show that the legal framework in the countries reviewed is largely in place although some contain gender-discriminatory provisions. However, patriarchal value systems have made it difficult to amend laws and the male-dominated administrative mechanisms have posed challenges for women to assert their rights on the ground.

In Myanmar, all lands are owned by the State. Under the Farmland Law of 2012 (FLL), rural communities, especially farmers, can register their land and obtain a legally recognised land certificate. The land certificate gives them user rights such as the right to access, sell or lease and gives access to facilities such as government loans.

FLL allows either men or women to apply for land certificates. But the research found that because the administrative practice is to use the ‘household head’ system, it was men who mostly received land certificates. Women received certificates when they are widowed or where they directly inherited land. Based on traditional norms, this system assumes the oldest male in a family to be the household head. This gender bias worsens within a male dominated administrative structure.

The research tool from Africa, the Women Land Rights Scorecard, indicates that the legal framework to protect women’s land rights is largely in place, except for areas such as inheritance rights.  For example, despite Kenya’s constitutional guarantee of equitable access to land for all, women and girls in Lamu, Kenya, inherit only a third of their father’s land while their male relatives inherit half. The Scorecard examined Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and Togo.

In Sri Lanka, gender discriminatory succession rules were found in laws under which State lands is distributed to people. The ‘head of the household’ concept also prevent women from applying for state land permits. The Kanyan Law, Thesawalamai Law and Muslim Law being the three personal lawsapplicable to different segments of the community, also contain several gender discriminatory provisions which inhibit women’s right to own, inherit and manage land. Although policy makers agree that state land inheritance rules need amendment, there is no such agreement regarding the personal laws as it has been challenging to break the patriarchal value systems.

Lack of awareness of land rights laws at the ground level

Lack of awareness of the laws is a major obstacle to realise women land rights. The Scorecard found that awareness of the laws at grassroots level was low mainly because the laws were not readily available in local languages or not widely publicised. This affects women’s decision-making power and ability to exercise control over land.

Despite efforts to raise awareness and increase women’s representation, implementation of these processes at community level was low. Even in countries like Mozambique where there is a strong female presence in decision making bodies, men were found to still dominate when it comes to decisions relating to land by limiting or excluding women in these discussions. The Scorecard therefore finds that women’s influence in decision making bodies remain weak in the countries reviewed.

Women’s ability to assert control over land due to the law

Customary laws and social norms which remain rooted in patriarchy, further limit women from asserting control over land.

The Scorecard found that in the African countries under review, men are viewed as heads of households while women are considered subordinates. In Kenya and Ethiopia, women in traditional contexts cannot own land or make decisions on land within their household structures.

It is a common perception in Myanmar that land registration is the responsibility of men. Women have played a supporting role in carrying out the administrative process on behalf of their male relatives. They were found to have a perception of security of tenure when their male relatives had land certificates.

In Kachin State of Myanmar where the practice is to bequeath lands to sons, it is common for women to gain access to land through their husband’s inheritance. As FLL plays an important role in strengthening land rights of rural Myanmar communities, the paper recommends amending the FLL to strengthen women’s land rights.  This would empower women farmers to gain control over productive assets and have more equal family relationships.


Pubudini Wickramaratne

Pubudini Wickramaratne is the Land Rights Policy Lead at Oxfam International