“Land for me is life.”
“It is everything, it is health, food security, and dignity.”
“It is life, overcoming adversity, and land security.”
“[Land for me is…] achievement and sustainability.”
“It is our home, where we raise our children, and where we preserve our culture.” – What does land mean for you? (2015)
Women and girls have historically suffered from a lack of control and ownership of land in Latin America, according to FAO. While the global community now acknowledges the connection between gender inequality on land and the persistence of poverty, little has effectively changed on women’s land rights in Latin America over the last decades. Although the scale and dimension of inequality varies from one society to another, the result is the same – an immense gender asset gap in Latin America.
To fill that gap, having legal frameworks and policies is not enough. Between the law and practice, there is a hard reality. Persistent gender, racial, and ethnic discrimination hamper implementation.
Also, policies and institutions are not yet truly responsive to the lives of women, especially those living in extreme poverty. It takes much more to affect real change on the ground.
What can be done to address the gender asset gap and secure land rights for women, especially in a patriarchal society such as Brazil?
Since 2008, Espaço Feminista – the organization I lead – has been dedicated to empowering grassroots women in northeast Brazil so that women and men are enabled to transform gender, race, and ethnic relations; secure equal rights; and claim autonomy to break out of extreme poverty.
We spoke with five Brazilian women, whose experiences give texture and depth to the causes of severe land inequity in a country where the Constitution and Civil Code have enshrined equal property rights for men and women.
1. Land is power. This is shown by the immense land concentration in Brazil in the hands of a few. Women who live in extreme poverty have many barriers to exercising their right to land.
National statistics and local data consistently indicate this gender disparity. When Espaço Feminista collected data in Bonito and Caruaru, two municipalities in Agreste Central in 2018, we found that only 12% of total registered land was under women’s names.
Moreover, only 5.5% of total agricultural land is registered under women’s names. This means, when women own land, their plots are smaller than men’s plots.
When we asked women about what kept them from registering land titles, Josefa da Silva, or Silvia, a widow who is a rural laborer in Caruaru, said:
“Women have countless barriers to overcome to get her land registered.”
She added that the barriers ranged from a lack of knowledge about the right to have land registered in her name to difficulties in paying notary fees.
2. An additional barrier is that a large percentage of women live for decades with their partners without legalizing their relationships.
According to our survey, 55% of the women interviewed in Bonito cohabitate with their partners without formalizing their relationships. In Caruaru, the percentage is 51.5%. Not having marriage papers has left many women in very fragile situations in terms of land and claims to other shared assets.
Dulcicleide from Bonito is an example of this. After living together with her partner for more than 25 years, the couple is still not married.
Most women – especially in the rural areas – receive their land through inheritance from their husbands, fathers, and other members of the family. When marriages and successions are not formally documented, women find they have no legal claim to family assets after the deaths of their husbands or family members.
3. Moreover, since gender bias is deeply rooted in Brazilian culture, notaries, and even the justice system, tend to favor men’s claims when successions are contested.
Maria da Silva, a farmer and mother of seven children from Bonito, shared her story. When Maria was younger and pregnant with her second child, her partner suddenly died, leaving her alone with no proof of their relationship. At the time, their first daughter’s birth was also unregistered.
To claim her partner’s pension, Maria went to a notary to get a birth certificate of her daughter and a certificate of her stable union. But when she explained her situation to the notary, he told her to “go to hell.”
Thankfully, she didn’t give up. She made an appeal at the public ministry and received a formal permission. When she returned to face the notary, she said:
“I went to hell [as you suggested] and I talked to the devil himself, and he sent you this letter.”
Eventually, she got her children registered and was able to claim her late partner’s pension.
4. Espaço Feminista has also documented an alarming trend – an increasing number of female-headed households with land insecurity.
Women with low income and minimum education experience more difficulties in enforcing their land rights. However, more of these women are becoming the heads of household.
In Caruaru, our survey has revealed the correlation between low levels of education, low income, and women as the chief income earners (even in households with husbands or male partners). A high percentage of women heads of household have less than five years of education and are in low-income situations.
Ana Clecia, a young mother of three children from Jacaré, Caruaru, gave us a simple and straightforward explanation for this phenomenon. She said:
The men have professions. They look for work in their trades. Women, on the other hand, are responsible for the children and the well-being of elders. They give up pride and take whatever work is offered. And sometimes they take more than one job. This is because they know that at the end of the day, they need to feed their children.
5. The most challenging and complex issue to untangle may be the overlap between land and housing security and domestic violence.
When we prepared our survey questionnaire, we took great care to ask about domestic violence indirectly, yet women in abusive relationships were still reluctant to reveal their situation. We witnessed how often women unequivocally denied experiencing violence despite obvious evidence of it.
DoCarmo from Caruaru told us how her father used to drink and beat her mother in front of their seven children and sexually abused her mother.
When DoCarmo was seven years old, one day, without any warning, a man arrived at their small house and informed her mother that she had four hours to leave the house. He told her that her husband had sold the house in exchange for a bottle of pitu (traditional alcohol) and a watch.
So, the mother and the children grabbed the very few items they had and fled before sunset. They ended up staying in a barn on a nearby farm, sharing the space with animals. They lived there for many years, and DoCarmo’s father never came back.
After many years of hard work, DoCarmo became a leader in the struggle for women’s land and housing rights – the right for a woman to have land in her name.
To have land in her name means giving power back to women. It means ensuring women have access to education and information. It also means that they have to understand what is needed to register their partnerships, and that barriers that keep women from claiming their inheritance must be removed.
To have land in her name means women who are chief income earners can take better care of children and the elderly. It also means women do not have to stay in abusive relationships because they lack independent access to shelter and livelihoods.
At Espaço Feminista, we are working to combine women’s empowerment, data collection, data analysis, movement building, and local and global advocacy.
We are combining knowledge, evidence, and increasing women’s organizing power and capacity to overcome the barriers to claim their rights, hold officials accountable to their commitments, and advocate gender equitable policies at local, state, and global levels to affect real change.