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Dr. Ashok Sircar, India program director at Landesa, a global development nonprofit that works to secure land rights for the world’s poor. Here, he analyzes the obstacles preventing Indian women from exercising their right to inherit land and discusses potential policy solutions.
It was like searching for that proverbial needle in a haystack.
From September through December 2012, my colleagues and I searched three Indian states looking for 120 women in any district who had inherited farmland from their parents or their husbands in the last eight years.
We wanted to interview these women as part of a study to determine how they exercised their rights to inherit land and what challenges they faced.
Apparently the challenges were significant.
Even though we searched an area with a population that included nearly one million rural women, we couldn’t find 120 such women.
We looked in six districts in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh. In one district we found five women who had recently inherited their land; in another twenty. But we couldn’t find enough to give us the sample size we needed for our study.
As my colleagues and I searched the countryside, we saw no shortage of women laboring in the fields. Indeed, across India women are hunched over the ground planting, weeding, fertilizing, and harvesting in unprecedented numbers. Data across many states makes clear that Indian women do more than half the agricultural labor. And in orchards, cotton, and ground nut cultivation, they do the majority. More than 80 percent of rural women in India work in agriculture.
But they don’t own the land they depend on.
This is not just a matter of a piece of paper awarding them ownership rights. It is about power, security, equality, and opportunity.
Without land titled in their names, women have no proof of residency and can’t access institutional credit, such as bank loans. They also can’t take advantage of agricultural extension programs, such as government offers of subsidized seeds and fertilizers.
That women do not inherit land impacts India’s ability to climb out of poverty. First, it is clear that women lack access to the tools (credit) and programs (agricultural extension services) they need to climb out of poverty. Second, as a wealth of research indicates, when women have control over land, they direct more of their income than do men toward their children’s education and nutrition.
This means that most rural women across India inherit poverty not property generation after generation. As a result, India is missing an opportunity.
My country’s constitution promises women more than this. It says women are equal to men. India prides itself on gender-sensitive legislation. In fact, in an effort to eliminate any remaining doubt about women’s inheritance rights, the central government in 2005 passed an amendment to the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 that spelled out that all Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, and Jain women (who make up the vast majority of women in India) have the same rights as their brothers to inherit residential property and agricultural land.
However, as our research indicates, these progressive laws have not helped ordinary Indian women—those who live in rural areas and depend on the land to survive.
Currently, many women tell us they are not aware that they can legally inherit land. A recent study by my organization (Landesa) and UN Women conducted in two states found that only 22 percent of families surveyed knew about the 2005 amendment that gave women equal inheritance rights. And those women who know they have a right to land say that powerful social customs prevent them from asking for their share.
Women say that if they assert their right to inherit land, they will cause conflict in their families. Their brothers and extended family will see them as greedy. And should their marriages fail or should they need to rely on their brothers for future help, their pleas for assistance might be dismissed. This fear is so pervasive that our earlier study found that almost half of all women said they didn’t want to inherit land because they feared it would create bad feelings in the family and community—even though it could help them climb out of poverty.
Not only is the progressive 2005 amendment not helping women, it appears as though it may actually be hurting them. Since its passage, women are reporting a disturbing trend: families are pressuring their daughters and sisters to circumvent the law by relinquishing their claim to their inheritance in writing in favor of their brothers. So what has always been a social practice—women forfeiting their claim in exchange for family harmony and cordial relations with their parents and brothers--is increasingly being legally legitimized by written declarations.
Given these strong social customs that prevent women from getting a share of their parents’ land, robust support systems are needed to help women stand up for their rights and begin to claim the land that is rightfully theirs. The government of India has started this by establishing women’s self-help groups (the Mahila Samakhya Program) in twelve states. These village-level groups support women dealing with a variety of challenges, including alcoholic husbands, domestic violence, unfair labor practices, and disrespected property rights. In Andhra Pradesh, Landesa trained the volunteers who help run these groups to help them better advocate for their members’ land rights.
Where microfinance groups are strong, throughout Odisha, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal, they offer another opportunity to educate and support women on their land rights.
And local officials, particularly revenue officials, need to be aware of the challenges women face, and should be trained to support women’s claims to land. Many local revenue officials are not knowledgeable about women’s rights. Landesa has begun such training in Odisha. And in Gujarat, the Women’s Group for Women’s Land Ownership has also been training revenue officials.
Lastly, educating both young boys and girls about their equal inheritance right will help ensure that they support their mother’s claim to their family land. Landesa has begun a promising project that has thus far educated 7,000 girls about their land rights. Another 30,000 girls will enroll later this year, with boys also participating.
It is in everyone’s interest that women be recognized as the farmers that they are. Their continued lack of assets contributes to not only their individual vulnerability, but also my country’s stubborn poverty.