Women's land rights formed part of the discussions of the 68th session on the Commission for the Status of Women. Credit: Naureen Hossain/IPS


UNITED NATIONS, Mar 21 2024 (IPS) - In the developing world, land rights for women remain tenuous in the agricultural sector. But if women farmers are recognized as landowners in their own right, it can lead to greater economic empowerment and be a positive step towards eradicating poverty.

This formed part of the wider discussions that are being hosted during the 68th session of the Commission for the Status of Women (CSW68) in New York. The leading theme of CSW68 and its side events is the effort to accelerate gender equality by addressing poverty and strengthening institutions.

In the context of the agricultural sector, what this would entail was the subject of its own side event, hosted in New York on March 14.

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the Government of Canada convened the discussion “Harvesting Empowerment: Women’s Resource Rights to Advance Gender Equality, Poverty Alleviation, and Food Security in Agriculture” to discuss a transformative agenda for ensuring women’s rights over land in rural areas. The event showcased efforts made by IFAD and its partners to enact what they call a transformative gender approach to empowering women and local communities at large to access their rights to land and resources. 

In rural areas, women play a key role in the management of their households and their farmland. However, it remains rare for women to be legally recognized as landowners. IFAD Lead Technical Specialist for Gender, Targeting, and Social Inclusion, Ndaya Beltchika, said as she opened the event that collective action and cooperation are needed in order to ensure resource rights for women, particularly in rural areas. “Empowering women transforms livelihoods and the agricultural landscape,” she said.

Since 2021, IFAD, in partnership with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), has launched a global initiative to integrate a gender transformative approach in developing interventions to promote resource rights for women, such as through policies, tools, and practices. It has been implemented in six countries where IFAD is currently delivering interventions, such as Kyrgyzstan, Uganda, and Bangladesh. It involved conducting a gender analysis of the barriers that prevent gender equality in rural communities, as well as identifying the needs and priorities of the participating communities. While the analytical framework is the same, the recommendations are context-specific and differ across each country due to socioeconomic, cultural, and political factors.

“How can we take that gender analysis and apply it locally?” said Elisabeth Garner, Scientist and Gender Equity and Social Inclusion Lead, CIFOR. According to Garner, this strategy has made it possible for locals to motivate responses and elevate community needs. This has included IFAD and its partners providing additional training on human or legal rights for poorer communities. In Bangladesh, for instance, through this framework, it has allowed them to work with marginalized communities to empower them and strengthen their climate change responses.

Citizen-driven efforts for visibility and data can make a difference For marginalized communities, including women, grassroots efforts raise awareness at the local and national level. Esther Mwaura-Muiru, the Global Advocacy Director for the Stand for Her Land campaign, added that “all too often, it is up to civil society to knock at the doors” of government institutions. She cited Kenya as an example, where 80 percent of farmers are women. Through grassroots and community-led efforts, the Kenyan government was able to collect data on the number of women who reported owning land. This had the effect of tracking data on the crops and seeds that these farmers grew. Though Mwaura-Muiru said that in order to reduce the exclusion of women, there had to be multiple ways to show proof of ownership.

“Land is pre-conditional to gender equality and sustainable development,” she said.

While a transformative gender approach is possible to address poverty and strengthen financial access for poor communities, this alone will not be enough. Making structural changes can also require societal acceptance. According to Moni Rowshan, Deputy Executive Director of the Association of Land Reform and Development (ALRD) Bangladesh, ensuring total rights to land and resources for women will require a change in society’s mindset. The contributions of women are not always recognized as farming, even by women themselves. As Rowshan told IPS, when they do not recognize their work in the homestead as farming, there is a tendency to minimize their effort or credit themselves as supporting their male relatives who run the farms.

If more women own land, then men may have less. The structural shift this could cause is likely to be met with resistance due to underlying sociocultural discrimination against women’s involvement in the agricultural sector and, by extension, women’s rights. This mindset can both reinforce and be influenced by laws that recognize land rights for men, but not for women.

However, this does a disservice to the women who are at the “frontier of food supply” for their families, the nation, and the rest of the world. Rowshan also added that, compared to their male counterparts, women farmers do not typically have access to modern tools to till and harvest crops, and have to work with fewer resources and use older, indigenous techniques. While the government should take measures to implement and enforce laws that recognize women’s land rights, society must also recognize the efforts of grassroots activists and farmers who advocate for land rights. “If society and government institutions do not recognize women as farmers, these supports are not going to them,” she said.

In cases where the government may have existing programs for farmers and women, those who would benefit from them are typically not aware they exist. Rowshan told IPS how, through the Stand For Her Land campaign, women in Bangladesh learned to articulate their demands and increase their understanding of legal issues as they pertained to them. “Once they talk about that, they bring other stakeholders like the government and  different agencies to listen to them. The government does have some programs for farmers and women, but these are not reaching them. So once they interact regularly, support starts coming to them. The more they are involved and present, the more support they can get,” she said.

Land rights for women mean greater economic empowerment through ownership of farming land or property and additional access to resources. By investing in women’s resource rights, investments are made to eradicate poverty through generating income and increasing food security. This would reflect the reality in many countries of the legitimate role that women play in the agricultural sector as farmers and landowners in their own rights. As the event reached its conclusion, there was a call for partnership and cooperation in raising the effort to promote women’s land rights. This level of recognition may only be achieved when all stakeholders involved can agree to this reality.

IPS UN Bureau Report