A recent report by U.N. Women and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) links upholding women’s land rights to the achievement of global food security and sustainable development.
Women play a central role in managing their household’s resources, producing food, and determining the the overall nutritional well-being of their households, even though they have little control over how the land they farm is used.
Many development advocates and practitioners have recently began placing a stronger emphasis on land rights as part of their campaign to end global hunger. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is advocating for more secure land rights as part of its campaign to meet the Millennium Development Goals, two of which include the eradication of poverty and hunger and the promotion of gender equality.
In an editorial about land rights being a necessary part of the development agenda, Tim Hanstad and D. Hien Tran of Landesa, a global development nonprofit that advocates for land rights for the poor, wrote: “This missing infrastructure is at the root of so many of today’s deep-seated challenges, because a key to reducing poverty and addressing a host of other problems, from gender inequality to conservation to food security, is providing women and men with the security they need to make long-term plans and invest year-to-year, rather than survive day-to-day.”
The amount of decision-making power that women have over how to dispose of the land and other natural resources is disproportionate to the amount of work and responsibility that are put upon them in the actual management of the land. Women account for nearly half of all smallholder farmers and make up a large proportion of all farmers. According to a Rutgers Center for Global Women’s Leadership study, women are also primarily responsible for raising food for the family by producing subsistence crops on more marginal lands.
A number of development studies and experts propose that establishing a set of land tenure policies to strengthen land rights, with a focus on women, is imperative to achieving food security. A study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has found that households in which women have secure land rights often have higher rates of “calorie availability and dietary diversity.”
While technological advances have increased the overall amount of food produced worldwide, some experts have attributed continuing food insecurity to poorly enforced or nonexistent land rights. In present-day Ethiopia, where people are better fed than in previous decades, increased food security is being attributed not only to the use of modern agricultural techniques but to recent changes in law and policy that have strengthened citizens’ land rights.
Moreover, some studies about food security in African countries suggest that food security strategies need to include land rights reforms. A study from the University of Toronto finds that land use policies that consider rural farming practices are necessary as a foundation for the ongoing food security projects in South Africa in order for the projects to have meaningful impact on hunger.
Another study from the International Food Policy Research Institute about women farmers in Ghana has also found that more secure land rights for women increases their incentives to invest in sustainable farming practices. And a study by Markus Goldstein, of the World Bank, and Chris Udry, of Yale University found, cultivating better land use policies will lead to more stable food production in the future.
Various governments worldwide are considering or have already taken steps to give women greater control over their property and land. Some states in India, have begun issuing land certificates with both husbands’ and wives’ names, and in some cases, under the woman’s name alone. Several African governments, including Uganda and Tanzania, have passed laws to give women more secure rights to land in the past decade, and initiatives are currently underway to better enforce the laws and make them more accessible to women. In Kenya, recent amendments to their constitution have catalyzed reforms that promise to strengthen the rights of women farmers.
In praise of the steps that Africa has taken to include securing land rights for women as part of the anti-hunger agenda, Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur said, “The right to food does not entail a set of policy recommendations to end hunger. Rather, it provides legal protections against developments that threaten people’s ability to produce or procure food.”
For farmers in developing countries, land assets and the control they have over them determine the subsistence of their households. USAID and other development practitioners believe that removing legal impediments that prevent farmers from having full autonomy over how to make the best use of their land is vital to their livelihoods and a sustainable food future.