Organisation Internationale de Droit du Développement

Feeding the Planet, Empowering Women

6 Mar 2015





This op-ed was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier

If we want to end hunger then we must empower women. If we want to feed the planet then we must fight gender discrimination.

Many of us get misty eyed about our favorite dish—“the way Mom made it”—but few of us give much thought to the relationship between food security and gender equality. From tilling the land to getting dinner ready for the family, women are instrumental in producing, preparing, and serving food. But the gap between their role and their concomitant rights is enormous.

Women farm the land but often do not own it. They cook the food but are expected to eat last in many cultures. When food is in short supply in poor families, girls are married off young, women become victims of domestic violence, and sometimes barter their bodies to feed their children and themselves. It is no mere coincidence that countries ranking highest on the global hunger index are also those where gender injustices are most stark.

If we want to end hunger then we must empower women. If we want to feed the planet then we must fight gender discrimination.

Both gender equality and food security are prominent themes of the international negotiations that are underway at the United Nations to adopt a new Development Agenda that will set the framework for international development policy and aid for the next decade and more. But it will be no more than a paper promise if the economic right of women to own, use and inherit, and sell land on the same basis as men gets short-shrift in this new Agenda.

Access to land is fundamental to women’s food security. It determines how much food women can produce, consume or sell—which in turn affects not only their own well-being but also that of their children. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), almost half the world’s agricultural labor force is female. Among the world’s 600 million livestock keepers, women are a large majority. Reliable statistics are hard to find on how much land women own or lease. Data suggests that on average women hold only 15% of the land titles.

Land is collateral for credit. How much land a woman owns often influences whether and how much she can borrow to invest in seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and tools to improve productivity. The gender imbalance in land ownership reinforces the gender asset gap in agriculture. Experts have estimated that if women farmers could borrow money to invest in fertilizers, pesticides, seeds, and tools on the same basis as men, they could increase their food productivity by almost a third. Just imagine what that would mean for the numbers of malnourished children in the world.

The barriers to women’s access to land are multiple. High on the list is laws, often based on religious or customary practices that govern marriage, divorce and inheritance and restrict women’s right to acquire, inherit, control, use or dispose of land. As recently as 2012, an international survey found that 86 out of 121 countries have discriminatory inheritance laws or practices. In my own country, Bangladesh, my entitlement to inherit land as a Muslim woman under Shari’a law is several times less than that of a brother, son, uncle or nephew.

Even in countries where the laws guarantee gender equality on land rights, implementation challenges may reduce their beneficial impact. Land titling and registration systems may be too complicated or corrupt or poorly administered. Women may lack basic documents such as birth or marriage certificates which are needed for land registration. Many countries do not have compulsory registration of births, marriages or divorces. Many families do not pay as much attention to registering the birth of girls as they do of boys.

Even when laws confer rights and are properly implemented, social pressure may force women, especially uneducated rural women, to cede their rights to brothers, sons or husbands. In India, where the 2005 Hindu Succession Act gives Hindu women equal right to their father’s property, women have been known to renounce their claims in favor of their brothers in order to maintain harmony in the family.

Access to justice is critical for claiming rights. But courts are often too far away, complicated, expensive and unresponsive to the needs of poor rural women who have little money, or time to spare from farm work and child care. The risks are too great, the response too poor to make the legal remedy really meaningful. In Kenya, IDLO has documented cases where women who go to court to assert their right to land are shunned for having “insulted” their menfolk. If they win their case, they may be beaten up or even killed. In the Solomon Islands IDLO reviewed dozens of court records but could not find any women listed as parties or witnesses to timber rights cases. Women’s names were absent from the official documents and agreements produced by the state legal system. When asked by the researcher, the women said that when they tried to attend court hearings they were told, “There’s only room for men; there is no room for any women.”

Traditional and customary laws and practices have a strong influence on how marriage, inheritance and land titling issues are addressed in many parts of the world, especially in rural areas. Legal pluralism is common in many countries with formal and informal legal systems being used simultaneously with the result that even when women have legal claims over land under the formal legal system, discriminatory customary practices, such as denying widows the right of inheritance, may continue to prevail. In Rwanda, where legal reforms have strengthened women’s statutory land rights, IDLO found that such entitlements had limited practical value in rural areas where customary law continued to dominate and women, particularly widows and divorced women, faced severe obstacles in protecting and upholding their interests in land.

Gender inequality is fundamentally a patriarchal power game. That is why even where customary land titling practices favor women, these are being increasingly disregarded and “forgotten” as land becomes a scarce resource, and rules are “re-interpreted” to benefit men.

The law sets the parameter of what is desirable and the boundaries of what is acceptable. As such, it influences and guides behavioral norms and social interaction between men and women. Ending legal discrimination on land ownership and inheritance for all women—married or unmarried, widowed or divorced—is therefore essential. But just as the guarantee of equal pay is meaningless to a woman who is prevented by her family from going out to seek work, a statute on equal inheritance is of little use to a widow who is hounded out of her late husband’s village.

Fair laws need to be underpinned by institutions that implement them effectively and social policies and services that empower women to stand up for their rights, access the institutions and hold them to account. In concrete terms, it means simplifying the process of land registration and putting it in language that women can understand. It means ensuring that women can get easily, speedily and at low cost the documents they need to register their claims. It means making women aware of their rights and giving them practical support such as paralegal services and legal counseling to claim rights.

Indonesia provides an interesting example where, in order to access rice subsidies women need to provide evidence that they are in fact the head of their household. But in many cases the women could not obtain divorce certificates, mostly from religious courts, because of the costs, the inaccessibility of courts or simply not knowing how to go about the process. A legal empowerment initiative, using paralegals, legal literacy training and advocacy, helped to sensitize the local government institutions about the women’s problems. It also led to policy changes, including more circuit courts in rural areas and waiver of court fees.

Any reform initiative must be conscious of the realities within which women live their lives in traditional rural societies where women cannot travel freely and are not encouraged to speak up in male-dominated environments. That might mean making agricultural extension services more gender-sensitive by taking them to where the women are, or bundling legal aid and empowerment initiatives with the social services and economic support that women need, as well as protection from gender-based violence. Good practice underlines the need for holistic support—legal as well as non-legal.

Far too often, policy makers and development experts focus on changing laws without understanding the gender politics that exclude and marginalize women. That is dangerous because experience shows that when initiatives to reform laws are carried out in isolation from the cultural context, without a proper understanding of the male-dominated community structures and the male-female power dynamic, they not only fail to bring about positive change, they actually set back progress. Formal titling that ignores the informal system, far from correcting historic wrongs, may further entrench discriminatory land rights.

Nor is reform likely to succeed if it fails to engage customary, informal systems or gender relations in traditional societies. Attempts in Kenya to transform customary procedures relating to land titling so that women’s access to land would be widened had the opposite effect of not only cementing male ownership, but also precluding women’s access and use of land under custom.

In the Solomon Islands men have traditionally had a prominent role in land dealings because they can speak and write in English and because of the custom of women “no save tok”—that is, may not talk about land—and should “stand behind” men. When the 1996 Land and Titles Act 1996 came in, it benefitted a small number of landholders, mostly men, who, exercising their traditional right to “talk” about land, effectively stepped forward and registered themselves as trustees.

IDLO’s extensive work with women and informal justice systems have thrown up interesting findings on how change comes about, what works and what does not. A comparative study of Tanzania and Mozambique found that women are better able to claim their rights when they have information and expert help, and can mobilize themselves to work collectively. A case study in Namibia found that customary rules are more amenable to change when male community leaders can be mobilized alongside women to advocate for positive transformation.

A core principle of the rule of law is that we are all equal—equally protected by the law and equally accountable to it. Not so it seems for women—especially in the context of food, land and law. Think of that the next time you see a poor woman with a hoe in the field or stirring a pot in her kitchen.

In May this year Expo 2015 will open in Milan with the theme of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”. A few months later, in September, world leaders will congregate in New York to adopt a new Agenda for Development. Will they take that opportunity to accord women equal access land? Feeding the Planet is about equality for women.

Irene Khan is the Director General of International Development Law Organization (IDLO)