Recognition of the property rights of women in Central America: Mission accomplished?


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The “Stand for Her Land” campaign focuses on increasing women’s access to and control of land. Photo: María José Casanova
The “Stand for Her Land” campaign focuses on increasing women’s access to and control of land. Photo: María José Casanova

It is hard to believe that only 70 years ago, in most Latin American countries, women could not vote.  Or even more recently, women’s access to land under agrarian reforms depended on factors like the consent of the male head of household or being a widow. During these times the concept of a working woman was virtually non-existent!

Fortunately, much has changed since then, particularly in Central America. For example, in Nicaragua, 51% of property titles granted through land regularization projects were registered to women, compared to only 9.7% in 1989. Similarly, in Panama between 1992 and 2010, this figure rose from 27.8% to 34.48%. 

In neighboring Costa Rica, Mujeres y Pobreza (Women and Poverty), a publication by the Instituto Nacional de las Mujeres (National Institute of Women), indicates that 95% of land awarded by the government between 2003 and 2006  was registered in the names of both the man and woman.

While those of us who manage land access programs can take heart in this progress, we must also ask ourselves the following question: Is this a case of a mission accomplished?

To respond, we must first separate overall figures (urban-rural) from those focusing exclusively on access to agricultural land. In the case of the latter, a wider gender gap persists. For example, the current overall figure in Honduras is estimated at 40%, while in the rural area, land registration in women’s names falls to 25%.


Chart: Relationship between parcel size and gender

            (Hombres – Men; Mujeres – Women; 0.35 ha. O menos – 0.35 hectares or less ; 352 ha. y más – 352 or more hectares)


A separate analysis must also be done on the quality and size of the land parcels to which women have access. For this analysis, we use Nicaragua as a benchmark. This is not the only country in the region exhibiting these features, but it has some of the best data on this matter. Based on the 2012 agricultural survey in Nicaragua, while significant progress has been made in the number of women who hold property titles, the number of owners falls considerably as parcel size increases.  In plots up to 0.35 hectares, 49% of property is owned by women. However, in the case of 7-hectare plots (10 manzanas), this figure falls to 17%; and in the case of land over 350 hectares (500 manzanas), the figure drops to 7%. 

Furthermore, most decisions related to leasing, production, inheritance, and the sale of property still continue to be made by men, a situation illustrated by Gabriel, a land regularization beneficiary in Honduras.  When he heard the word “gender” at a land regularization workshop in Honduras he stated forcefully: “In terms of gender, I don’t think things can be so equal; the man always heads the family.”

Gabriel grew up believing that men must be in control in the home; and since it is their responsibility to provide for their families, decisions related to property and the handling of property-related transactions and documents must be made solely by men.

To overcome the gender gap, particularly in household decision making, the challenge lies not only in addressing the percentage of land plots registered in women’s names, but also in promoting the involvement of women in land-related decisions  and the control of productive resources – in improving their agency and ability to participate in household and even community-wide decisions.  In other words, beyond the policy framework for achieving progress, we must strive for inclusion in terms of access to and control of land.  

The “Stand for Her Land” campaign focuses on just this – increasing women’s access to and control of land and property assets so that women can become full and productive members of their families, communities, and countries. 
What other factors do you think should be used to gauge whether gender equality exists with respect to land access? What measures do you think can provide women with equal access to land as a means of production?  How can we achieve, in a beneficial and respectful manner, a cultural shift in communities, at least with respect to women’s access to land? 

We want to hear your views. You can respond in the comments section. 


February 12, 2020

February 3, 2020
Dear Reina Zavala,
We are contacting you from El Salvador, where we are five students currently studying at Escuela Americana, currently enrolled in the elective class “World Issues” taught by Dr. Navero. Our goal for this class is to review and debate the sustainable development goals set by the UN with regard to El Salvador.
As we began discussing our first topic; “Poverty,” we navigated through many websites but decided to utilize The World Bank website. When we found your article, “Recognition of the property rights of women in Central America: Mission accomplished?” we became very interested in the topic, and after reading it, we decided to contact you.
We are particularly interested in learning more about how the government of El Salvador has helped improve women’s rights by giving them more access to land. In the article, you mentioned how “in Nicaragua, 51% of property titles granted through land regularization projects were registered to woman, compared to only 9.7% in 1998.” So we’re wondering, if you have any information regarding similar projects in El Salvador. As stated in the article, Costa Rica has a group called “Mujeres y Pobreza” which has helped women in the work area. We are wondering if there are any groups like this one in El Salvador. Another example from the article is that in Nicaragua the greatest percent of land goes to men and the smaller percentage goes to women. Do you know if this is also true here in El Salvador?
Finally our group is interested in any current projects which will affect the near future, or if there are any projects that are formulating which will start soon. If you would please provide us with information about these projects we will be very grateful. Furthermore can you please instruct us as to any way in which we could help with these issues, which are affecting not only Latin America but also the rest of the world.
Maria Jose Valiente, Alexia Lemus, Ana Lucrecia Samayoa, Sabrina Cohen, and Alexia Samayoa
Contact Information:

Reina Zavala
March 27, 2020

Dear Alexia,

Countries in Central American regions have very similar stories in regards to women access to equal rights and their participation in the economic life.

According to data published in ISTA in 2017, 46.5% of title deeds registered in rural areas were under the name of women as owners and co-owners and it is possible that in urban areas these values could present a rising trend.

In El Salvador, the ISTA has a gender unit where you could go to in search of information. We also recommend for you to go over the information about the World Bank’s new projects that are related with your investigation topic in El Salvador… and to access some of the results in terms of inclusion that recent projects have had in your country:

We have sent to your email addresses information that you might find useful.

It’s so important and hopeful that young people explore these topics for development of their countries! We congratulate you.

Mario Varela
April 28, 2020

Would you happen to know what is the status of the land disputes of garifunas in Honduras? I am assisting asylum seekers in the United States who claim they are fleeing their county because they were targeted, and received death threats during those conflicts.