Landesa, the Seattle-based land rights organization and a Ford partner, is this year’s recipient of the prestigious Hilton Humanitarian Prize, awarded annually for “extraordinary contributions to alleviating human suffering.” Landesa has worked for decades promoting land-related laws, policies, and programs around the globe, and to date has partnered with governments in over 50 countries, securing land rights for an estimated 115 million rural families. The $2 million in unrestricted funding that comes with what is the world’s largest humanitarian award will go a long way in supporting the organization’s efforts to draw global attention to the relationship between land rights and inequality and develop measures and data to show progress against the UN’s post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), targets, and indicators.
What is the relationship between land rights and inequality? Nearly three-quarters of the world’s poorest (who live on less than $1.25 a day) reside in rural areas but lack legal rights to the land they farm. A growing body of research shows that land tenure reform efforts increase agricultural productivity and household income among such populations, helping to establish a foundation for alleviating poverty. That said, the household-level focus of past efforts yielded two critical additional findings: Other important indicators of poverty, such as household nutrition, health, and education, did not reflect the same level of improvement as income and productivity—and researchers discovered that this is due to the fact that women and men tend to use assets differently, with women being more apt to use them in a manner that benefits their household and children.
However, despite that women account for nearly 50 percent of the world’s agricultural labor and in some countries produce more than half the food, in many countries statutory law doesn’t provide for women’s land rights. Where I work, in East Africa, when such legislation does exist, customary law takes precedence when ownership, inheritance, or access is called into question. Kin relationships and status as wives, mothers, sisters, or daughters determine the quality and extent of land rights, leaving women and their dependents without sufficient security when traditional family structures dissolve through labor mobility, divorce, separation, or death. This type of gender-based discrimination is pervasive in the developing world and is a key obstacle to women’s ability to rise out of poverty.
Landesa recognized early on that efforts to reduce global poverty must focus on land tenure security not only for men, but also specifically for women. The UN’s open and inclusive process for developing a post-2015 development agenda presented an ideal opportunity to elevate the issue of women’s land rights and catalyze governments and members of the international development community to take concrete steps to provide for them, and Landesa has worked actively to ensure that the UN Sustainable Development Goals explicitly mention women’s land rights. As a result of efforts by Landesa and others, land rights are mentioned in three of the SDG subgoals, and there’s growing recognition that land rights are essential to advancing many of the aspirational SDGs, including ending poverty, ensuring food security, achieving gender equality and empowering women, and making cities and human settlements inclusive.
Landesa is the only international organization focused on improving laws and policies related to helping women gain secure rights to the land they farm. To strengthen skills and capabilities in this area, Landesa launched the Visiting Professionals Program (VPP) in 2012, to cultivate a network of qualified professionals who are strongly committed to strengthening women’s land rights at the local, national, and international levels. The program, designed to enhance participants’ capacity to understand women’s land rights issues from a comparative perspective, has worked with practitioners from India, China, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. One of its core innovations is a framework for analyzing women’s land rights that can be used in the design and monitoring of any land project. The framework now comprises the analytical foundation for VPP’s work and has been applied by Landesa and others in the field of women’s land rights.
For women to have secure rights to land, those rights must be both legally and socially acceptable. Legal and social acceptance can only occur if there are local, national, and global leaders who both understand the current situation and have a vision for change. But consensus on the importance of equal rights to land for women and men, and the role that stronger land rights for women can play in achieving other development goals, can only take us so far. Lasting change must be driven by practice.