Study: Rural, indigenous women lack land rights protections worldwide

A woman tills her land in Cusco, Peru. If women had the same land rights as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30%%, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. (Credit: Percy Ramírez Medina/Flickr)

Countries that have agreed to a U.N. convention against discrimination are failing to provide indigenous and rural women legal protections to own and manage property, according to a new report.

The Rights and Resources Initiative released a study today analyzing 80 legal frameworks in 30 low- and middle-income countries, which had ratified the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. According to the findings, not one met the minimum standards outlined in the convention.

“Up to 2.5 billion people hold and use the world’s community lands, yet it is widely recognized that the tenure rights of women – who comprise more than half the population of the world’s Indigenous Peoples and local communities – are insufficiently respected and protected by governments,” according to the report.

The researchers said that protecting women’s property rights has become particularly urgent as the number of women-led households in rural areas around the world increases – a trend partially linked to the growing number of men leaving home in search of work elsewhere. According to the report, the percentage of female-led households is increasing in half of the world’s 15 largest countries by population, including India, Nigeria, and Pakistan.

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But only 57 percent of the countries analyzed affirm women’s property rights, and more than a third have laws that either discriminate against daughters, widows, and/or women in consensual unions, or defer to religious or customary law without safeguarding women’s inheritance rights.

In these contexts, women often rely on men to access and benefit from property – a trend that the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, said keeps countless agrarian communities from thriving economically.

“Indigenous women are usually the food producers in subsistence production, so of course if they’re given more rights and they have more secure rights to their lands, the chances that they’ll be able to produce in a sustained manner will be much higher,” Tauli-Corpuz told Humanosphere. “If there’s no security of their rights, that will negatively affect their capacity of food production or production of crops that can be sold at the market.”

In one example, the Food and Agriculture Organization found that improving women’s property rights in Burkina Faso by itself would increase total household agricultural production by about 6 percent, simply by reallocating resources like fertilizer and labor from men to women.

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The report stresses the need for legal reforms regarding women’s governance, such as voting and leadership, and inheritance rights. Tauli-Corpuz also highlighted the need to ensure that indigenous people have the ability to access resources to ensure their rights themselves, whether in the form of loans or a direct assistance from governments.

But overall, she said that little progress will be made until women’s issues get specific attention on the local level, as well as in nations’ laws.

“It happens at both levels. There are some existing traditional or customary laws that protect the rights of indigenous people and their lands, but at the local level there needs to be more awareness and push for indigenous women to also have those rights,” Tauli-Corpuz said. “And at the national level, the laws that are developed to protect these rights must also specifically refer to indigenous women.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com