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Gender Equality: Women, Land, and Data

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A woman in Zambia holding her new land documents. Photo credit: Rena Singer.
A woman in Zambia holding her new land documents. Photo credit: Rena Singer

In recent months, supreme courts from India to Nigeria and Zimbabwe have issued historic opinions recognizing and strengthening women’s rights to land and property.

And while this is important and welcome progress, courts alone aren’t going to get us far enough, fast enough on this critical issue.

In more than 30 countries women and girls do not have the same rights to own or inherit land as men and boys. And in dozens of others, customs undermine women’s rights to land and property. This tenure insecurity constrains opportunity for more than one billion urban and rural women. Nowhere is the problem worse than in Sub-Saharan Africa. The World Bank estimates that 90% of the rural land in Sub-Saharan Africa is undocumented. And women’s land and property rights are least likely to be documented.

We use the term “estimates” and “likely” in the above because much of this is just educated guesswork right now. To expedite progress on women’s land and property rights, the status of women’s land and property rights needs to be less terra incognita. Currently, there are tremendous gaps in our understanding of women’s land and property rights. For starters, we don’t know how much land is legally held or controlled by women nor how many women legally hold or control land.  We don’t know enough about how many women feel at risk of losing their land, nor where this fear is most prevalent. It is challenging, and perhaps impossible, to manage a problem that hasn’t been measured.

Despite the lack of data on this pressing challenge, governments and policymakers in many geographies are trying to bridge the gap for women. A growing body of empirical research finds that strengthening women’s land and property rights can increase returns of women’s labor, increase their control over and ability to benefit from family assets, and increases women’s voice and agency. Together, these shifts in women’s position within the household can create a profound ripple effect on income, food security, land stewardship, and children’s welfare. 

On a macro level, strengthening women’s land and property rights serves as a key driver of inclusive, country-led, agricultural transformation. Research shows that women’s land rights increase investments in boosting agricultural productivity—which is a powerful evidence-based pathway to poverty alleviation and inclusive agricultural transformation. In fact, there are few more powerful ways to reduce hunger and poverty than when farmers invest in improving their harvests and their lives.

In this way, securing women’s land rights could stimulate entire economies and help grow a more food secure future.

The current lack of data shouldn’t dissuade us.

Today, we take for granted the broad availability of standardized poverty data or—for financial services—the FINDEX; but these data sets are relatively recent inventions that have served as necessary early building blocks for addressing global poverty and financial inclusion.

Unfortunately, despite calls from advocacy groups, the necessary data to determine progress on SDG land-related targets (Goals 1, 2, 5 and 15) is not being systematically gathered.

Today, action is needed on several fronts and by multiple stakeholders. We need:

  • Data on land documents, but also on how people experience the systems that support land tenure. It is important to know who has land documents in their name as well as who does not. But data on legal documents is not enough. Tenure security requires that a range of systems are functional and equitable regardless of your gender, race, ethnicity, or income. They include systems for dispute resolution, enforcement, and land administration that can be formal or customary. Tracking perceptions of tenure security is a simple but useful proxy to signal whether those systems are working and for whom. Prindex, a promising global effort to gather gender-disaggregated perceptions on land tenure security, deserves attention and support. It recently found that half of all women in Sub-Saharan Africa worried that they would lose their land if they were divorced or widowed.
  • Data that is actionable and accessible. That addresses the needs of decision-makers in a timely manner, that is easy to find, understand and use. Data that can be used by those in a more vulnerable position to advance their rights.
  • Capacity building. NGOs, international bodies, and governments will need to build the capacity at the country level to generate and analyze data. The promising and collaborative Global Land Indicators Initiative could help build capacity at the government level. Global land rights NGOs that are deeply embedded in multiple countries, such as Landesa, require funding to support “data gap advocacy” with data stewards and to build the capacity of their grassroots partners. Such grassroots civil society groups with the potential to effectively collect data because of their community connections—such as Espaco Feminista in Brazil and GROOTS in Kenya—could also benefit from direct funding and other partnerships.

Closing a data gap may seem technocratic and boring. But the social and economic empowerment prospects of more than one billion largely poor women who lack secure, legal land and property rights hinges on the success of these efforts. 


Tim Hanstad (@timhanstad) is CEO of the Chandler Foundation, co-founder of Landesa, and a Skoll Social Entrepreneur Awardee.


Tim Hanstad

Chief Executive Officer, Chandler Foundation

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