Women’s property rights are essential for women’s empowerment. Equal access to property ownership and inheritance is associated with greater female labor force participation. Gender differences in asset ownership also influence women’s ability to access credit - banks are reluctant to lend to customers who lack traditional collateral such as land. Many countries have implemented reforms to equalize property rights. In many cases, gender differences in property ownership stemmed from legacy legislation from colonial laws. Still, legal barriers for women to access, own and administer assets persist worldwide.
The Managing Assets indicator in the Women, Business and the Law 2019: A Decade of Reform study examines gender differences in property and inheritance law in 187 economies globally.
Over time, countries have been moving towards closing the legal gender gap in this area. While 112 economies do not restrict women’s property rights, thereby receiving a score of 100, 75 economies still limit women’s rights to manage assets. Europe and Central Asia is the only region where all the economies score 100.
Strong property rights are a critical component of land ownership. This includes how the law governs the management of assets during marriage. Not having control of land or housing can deprive women from direct economic benefits. The data shows that nine economies worldwide still grant the administrative rights over assets during marriage to the husbands. For example, in Chile the husband administers joint property but also any private property of his wife unless she acquired it using financial means independent of his.
Women’s lack of income during marriage also impacts their economic prospect. Because women are more likely to perform unpaid activities that benefit the household such as child or elder care, they typically have fewer monetized contributions than men and, therefore, acquire fewer assets during marriage. Recognition of these nonmonetary contributions is important during the dissolution of marriage because it can grant women access to a share of marital property. Though these contributions are implicitly recognized in community property regimes, separate property regimes can penalize a spouse that does not earn an income during marriage. This income penalty can be mitigated in divorce by explicitly recognizing nonmonetary contributions to a household. Out of 75 economies with separation as the default marital property regime, only 28 have recognized non-monetary contributions.
Middle East and North Africa and South Asia are the regions with most restrictive laws, particularly in inheritance. For example, in South Asia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Maldives do not provide for equal inheritance rights for sons and daughters. This is also the case in all countries in the Middle East and North Africa except in Malta. Data shows that giving women greater access to assets through inheritance can change outcomes for children, particularly girls. In 1994, two states in India reformed the Hindu Succession Act to allow women and men the same ability to inherit joint family property. This altered control over assets within families and increased parental investments in daughters. Mothers who benefited from the reform spent twice as much on their daughters’ education, and women were more likely to have bank accounts and sanitary latrines where the reform occurred. Eventually, this reform was enacted across India.
Great strides have been made in closing the legal gender gap on property rights. Still, there is much more to be done where laws restricting women’s access to inheritance, land ownership and other assets persist. Legal frameworks that grant women equal property rights are a crucial first step in empowering women, socially and economically.