Women's Land Rights

Tuesday, January 9, 2018
Hundreds of forest dwellers demanded the Indian government to place control of all the villages' forest lands under the control of the village communities, free from the control of the government's forest department. REUTERS/Parivartan Sharma
Chris Jochnick

President and Chief Executive Officer, Landesa

Victoria Stanley

Senior Land Administration Specialist, World Bank

Rachel B. Vogelstein

Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program, Council on Foreign Relations

Leading international institutions and private sector corporations have concluded that women’s economic participation is critical to global growth and prosperity. However, today nearly 90 percent of nations still have laws on the books that impede women’s work, thereby undermining economic development. Chris Jochnick and Victoria Stanley discuss the legal barriers that women face with respect to property ownership and land rights.

This meeting is part of a high-level series, in collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to explore the economic effects of inequality under the law.


VOGELSTEIN: Good morning, everyone. Good morning. We’ll go ahead and get started. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. My name is Rachel Vogelstein. I lead the Women and Foreign Policy Program here at CFR, which analyzes how elevating the status of women and girls advances U.S. foreign policy objectives.

I want to begin by expressing my gratitude to Amy Jerrett and Rosita Najmi of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for their support for the Council’s work, including our session here today. Our discussion this morning is part of our Gates Roundtable Series on Women, Economic Growth, and the Law, which is focused on legal barriers to women’s economic participation. Despite the strong relationship between women in the workforce and economic growth, today nearly 90 percent of nations still have laws on the books that impede women’s work and undermine economic development. And even when women have achieved equality under the law, implementation remains a significant challenge.

And nowhere is this more true than in the area of land rights, which is what we will discuss here this morning. Gender inequalities in ownership, inheritance, purchase, and use of land and productive resources persists around the world. We know that in some countries, there are still laws that explicitly render women inferior to men with respect to land tenure. And in many others, even where equality has been achieved, women’s ability to control land is limited by social and cultural norms.

Today we have decades of research that confirms that these barriers have a cumulative effect, not only on the economic prospects of women but also on the economic health of families, communities, and, importantly, economies. These disparities persist notwithstanding the evidence we have suggesting that when women do have control over land, economic opportunities grow, hunger does down, and women’s decision-making power in the household goes up, which we know has profound effects on the health and education of their children.

So after years of advocacy for greater land rights for women, today we’ll ask and explore what is the current status of women’s land tenure in 2018? Where have we seen gains? Can we show, and have we seen, that those gains are producing concrete economic effects? And what kinds of programs are the most effective in leveling the playing field for women’s land tenure around the world?

I’m very pleased that we have two experts with us this morning to help us answer these questions. First, we are fortunate to be joined by Chris Jochnick, the global land rights expert and CEO of Landesa, which is the leading NGO working to secure land rights for the world’s poorest families. Prior to this role, Chris led Oxfam America’s work on private sector engagement. He is the cofounder and former director of two pioneering nonprofit organizations, including the Center for Economic and Social Rights, and he’s also a professor of business and human rights at Harvard Law School. Chris, welcome.

We are also very fortunate to be joined by Victoria Stanley, a senior land administration specialist at the World Bank. Victoria has worked across Europe, Central Asia, Latin America, and Africa on land administration and management projects, as well as rural municipal development with a particular focus on gender. She also has expertise in information technology, public service delivery, institutional reform, and strategic planning and budgeting. Victoria, welcome.

Chris, I want to start by asking you to set some context for our discussion. Talk to us a little bit about why women’s land rights are so critical to economic development. And given the number of inequalities facing women around the world today, why should we prioritize this particular issue, as compared to so many of the other gender gaps that we see?

JOCHNICK: Yeah, great. Thank you. Thank you, Rachel. And thank you for this invite. I was remembering about 20 years ago, maybe 15 years ago, so I used to work at Paul, Weiss. Some of my old colleagues there and I would sneak into CFR meetings on the coattails of Ted Sorensen. So it’s nice to be invited formally and feel a little bit more legitimate.

So this is a very timely discussion and happy to be here. I will try to set the context a little bit. There’s basically three things we know still about those living in poverty today. They live in rural areas. They depend on land to survive. And they don’t have secure title to that land. And that creates a whole host of dysfunctions. But that—those dysfunctions, development and otherwise, are exacerbated for women, for all the reasons that Rachel just noted, and I’ll go through some of those. But for women, it’s particularly difficult because in many countries, as Rachel mentioned, there are still formal laws on the books—whether it’s property laws or marital laws or family laws—that discriminate against women with respect to landholdings.

But even more pervasive and problematic and difficult are the customary laws and the customary norms. And in many countries, it’s the customary laws that prevail over land issues, so that even when you have very progressive laws on the books regarding women’s rights—which today we do see in many countries, and that’s been one sign of progress, I think is that many countries have adopted forward-looking laws around women’s and women’s rights—the women’s status in practice hasn’t changed much, either because the constitution or the national laws defer to customary law or because even where customary law may also align with the formal law, the practices themselves and the lack of understanding and empowerment of women means that women still stuff all kinds of discrimination with respect to land.

And what that means in practice is that women lack the ability to own land, to transfer land, to lease land, to manage land, and, importantly, to inherit land. And so there’s a whole bundle of issues wrapped up in land and property that create these problems for women. And what it means is that we know from studies—and Victoria can go into more of this because the World Bank has been at the forefront of many of these studies—but we know that where women’s land rights are secured we see gains across a whole host of critical development issues, starting with income. Income goes up. And a number of issues relating to the family, so food security, education, health, nutrition—those things also go up because women tend to invest more in their families when they manage the resources. And so land rights is sort of at the center of a whole host of these development issues.

But even more important than that—and I’ve come to realize this in many of my travels now talking to women—that we’re—rather than start with all of those benefits when I meet with women who have recently been granted and title, they go straight to status. That it absolutely affects how they are viewed in society, in their family. By dint of not having the same ownership rights to land, women are effectively second-class citizens. And they’re invisible in many ways. They’re not on the map. We’ve worked with governments where we—governments have gone out to try to find the most land-poor, and they will come back with lists of thousands of names. And they’ll all be male names, because it’s the men who are visible. They are the head of households. And the women are effectively invisible, because that’s the norm. And so governments have to be pushed to actually identify women.

And so really the question of status and political empowerment is absolutely vital also. And we can talk a little bit more about that. But it’s often left behind because many of the development issues are easier to measure. And we now have seen many studies, whereas the political issues and the transformation in dignity and identity, which is absolutely critical to development, is tougher to measure in many cases. But, so, I’ll leave it there. And I don’t know if Victoria wants to add—

VOGELSTEIN: Thanks for that. Victoria, give us your perspective and also, specifically, from an economic perspective, how is it that women’s land rights actually unlock economic potential and growth?

STANLEY: Well, I think—I mean, I’m assuming that everyone here intrinsically understands why property rights are important. I mean, probably most of you own your own home. So these are things that, you know, are important for men and women because they do provide for, I mean, obvious things—shelter, food security, and that—sort of that—I think that sense of sort of community belonging, that sense of having a place in the community. Those are all sort of tied up with where you are, where you belong, where you fit.

But I think—and then—and then you add onto that all of the other economic options. For instance, if the country has the kind of system that allows for using property as collateral, then obviously that’s one of them. But I mean, we know that people invest more in the land when they have a sense that this is theirs, and it’s not going to be taken away. And that’s really what property rights are all about. It’s about providing that security of tenure. And it can be done not just through formal titling. There are other options. I think people have gotten hung up on titling as the one way to do it, but there are many other options that are out there.

And that security allows you to invest in the land, to, you know, feel part of the—a member of the community. I mean, there are other things that we don’t even think about. Like, for instance, the amount of time that men and women in developing countries spend guarding the land—literally—to keep encroachment out. Fallowing is a big problem in a lot of parts of the world, where—because the agricultural land needs to be constantly used in order to maintain your claim. You don’t let it fallow. And that impacts its productivity further down the line.

So all of those things are really important. And they matter for men and for women. I think me personally, I’m kind of tired of having this argument why property rights matter for women. Of course, they matter for women. It’s a given. Let’s stop having that discussion because if property rights were denied to any other group on the basis of their ethnicity, their religion, their social status, et cetera, I think you would find a lot more people up in arms about that. Women make up 50 percent of the population of this world. They’re the main caregivers in most countries still today. And so, you know, there are huge ecosystems that are dependent—children, you know, elders, et cetera. And so we can’t ignore this anymore, because we do it at the peril of not just economic development, but I also think social and community development as well. So, yeah.

VOGELSTEIN: That’s helpful. And I think, you know, now let’s move to exactly what we should be up in arms about. So, Chris, I’m going to turn to you to just give us a picture of the legal landscape. We actually have seen some changes in the law with respect to women’s land rights over the last two decades. Tell us a little bit about which countries are still the most restrictive for women, or which regions. Where is that we’ve seen legal reform in recent years? Where are countries lagging behind. And, you know, let’s talk about the law. And then, Victoria, I’ll turn to you to talk a little bit about implementation.

JOCHNICK: Great. So I brought some handouts, which I will leave here, which describe a little bit about some of these legal issues and where we see problems. And the World Bank has produced studies about this going through all the different countries, and specifically looking at the question of property rights. And my reading of that, because I’m only familiar with certain regions, is this is a problem that affects almost all of the developing world. And it’s tough to pick out certain regions that’s worse than others, because there are certain parts of the legal architecture that are bad in some countries, and other parts that are bad in others.

One thing I will say, though, is that to the extent that customary law prevails, and it does so much in Africa, for example, and parts of Asia, that really is a huge additional barrier to whatever the formal legal rights are. And so I would say that it remains for a majority of developing countries, and some developed countries, a legal issue first and foremost, and then—and then the question of the customary law.

But where we have seen progress, Landesa has worked in over 50 countries over the course of 50 years. And we have seen progress across all of those countries. That was—it’s on that basis that we go into these countries. So we worked most recently across a number of states in India, we’ve seen a lot of progress there. We’ve worked for many years in China. We’ve seen much good progress there. We’ve worked in parts of Africa. We’ve seen great progress in places like Rwanda, and Ethiopia, and more recently in Liberia, and Ghana, and Tanzania, and Malawi, where the formal legal regimes have been reformed to provide for more rights for women with respect to a number of issues, but including land and property rights.

So on the formal side we have seen good progress. And most recently, I should say, in Myanmar where, despite all the terrible news coming out of Myanmar, there’s actually a flipside of that. There’s a very positive story on land rights in Myanmar, where the government is moving quite quickly to assure rights for small holders and women are, in most of those cases, the vast majority are also being included in those titling regimes—schemes. So that’s also very positive.

Some of the issues that we have worked on specifically which are relevant get down to a more technocratic level. But there, you can really see a lot of good progress. And I will say, before coming to Landesa I was a human rights lawyer. And I always thought big picture. And it was almost enough if you got a law passed a treaty moved things in the right directions, or maybe you won a precedent-setting legal case. But where Landesa has spent an equal amount of time is ensuring that those kinds of big-ticket legal change actually has an impact in practice. And so, to give you an example, even in countries where women have all the rights of men, you will still see land documents being issued in the name—with just one name on them, and it’s always a male name.

And so one of the simple reforms that we’ve pushed in a number of countries is ensuring that every land document has both names of both spouses on it. And where governments have been willing to do that, and often they are, that immediately formalizes land rights for women, and hundreds of thousands of women can be affected by a simple technocratic fix along those lines.

But there are a number of other interventions that we have seen very positively. And I’ll just quickly suggest a few and Victoria can go further with this. At the global level, we have seen a lot of progress on land rights. So we will talk, I’m sure, more about the Sustainable Development Goals, but unlike the Millennial Development Goals, where land was left out, the Sustainable Development Goals are replete with references to land. Specifically, in goals one, two and five, having to do with poverty, food security, and women’s empowerment. So that’s a huge step forward.

And then, at the regional level, the African Union has made a number of commitments to land rights, including that 30 percent of all land should be in the hands of women owners. The U.N. has come forward with—a number of their treaty bodies have now recognized land rights as basically human rights. The FAO, working with a number of other actors, has come out with a very forward-leaning set of standards, the voluntary guidelines. So we’ve seen a lot of progress at the international and regional levels. And we’ve seen some progress at state levels in terms of the legal change, where I think we still see lots of holes in terms of implementation gaps, in terms of more solid data gathering and understanding of the connections between land rights and women’s rights.

But I think Victoria’s point is worth emphasizing. I think the argument over the importance of land rights is past now. And now we really have to dig into some of these trickier interventions and see which ones are really yielding fruits and which ones have gone not so far.

VOGELSTEIN: So, Victoria, can you weigh in on that? We’ve moved, arguably, from the why to the how. Some of the biggest challenges reside in the area of implementing the legal changes that have occurred over the past few decades. What is it that works best? What are the best leverage points to reduce the barriers to leveling the playing field for women’s land rights, you know, in practice, as opposed to—(inaudible)—under the law? And specifically, what is the Bank doing to help translate that law in the books to a change in women’s lives?

STANLEY: So I think I should say that while we do know some things, we don’t know a lot of things. So I think we’re still learning ourselves. And a lot has been done by Landesa and by other organizations in terms of, you know, pilot intervention and testing out. And I think now we really need to start taking from a scale of really seeing what we can—what kind of impact we can have, you know, country-wide. I think the other thing is that, you know, land rights do tend to be rather idiosyncratic. So, you know, every country is a little bit different. And when you get into customary tenures, then it can be really squirrely and tricky.

So understanding the context in which you’re working in is vitally important. And really understanding how women access land. In customary systems, not always but often, it is they marry into the—(audio break)—et cetera, and then their access to that land is through that marital relationship. And so everything is fine, until there’s some kind of—(audio break)—whether it’s divorce or widowhood. And then that’s where things can really become difficult for the women. Also, of course, if the relationship is not going the way that they would like it to go, we have to. We have to understand how women access land and then figure out how we can incrementally move the bar.

And unfortunately, I think it is going to have to—is our systems that are sewn up in tradition, culture, patriarchy, whatever you want to call it. And so it’s not something you can just radically change by the stroke of a pen. I think, you know, governments have been trying to do that for some time now, putting statutory law on the books that may sound great and look like Sweden, but the reality is not the same. So I think it’s really about getting onto the ground and figuring out, you know, what are the specific challenges that women face, listening to the women themselves and what can we do to help them.

And, you know, also, one of the things that we have found that I think works across the board is obviously education. So, informing women about their rights and informing men about women’s rights, informing the land agencies themselves about their statutory obligations because often they don’t know what the requirements are. And as Chris said, I mean, joint titling, putting both names on whatever that certificate is, I mean, that is one thing that can help. But unfortunately, you know, that’s just a piece of the puzzle. There are many—(audio break)—in place to ensure that that security follows through when the marriage dissolves, or what happens for the next generation.

I mean, if her name is on the title but her daughters don’t inherit, then we—how much have we really achieved? So I think we need to continue that conversation. We have—I mean, the Bank has been experimenting with a few things. One interesting case that I just came across was in Uganda, where they’ve been experimenting with financial debt/joint title. I think that this was done in Tanzania also, where it wasn’t so successful. So in Uganda, it seems to be having an impact. Apparently, the rate of willingness to joint title has gone up to—from 40 percent to 70 percent. But I wonder if, you know, there would be other ways of encouraging that around—through education, not just, for instance, financial.

And then I think, you know, there is also a very interesting case study from Jordan, although we don’t have any data on this. The sharia courts have been extremely coy about telling us what the success rate has been. But they—the sharia courts actually themselves went ahead and changed the practice there that in inheritance cases usually the daughters would give up their rights automatically to their husbands. So they actually, supposedly, have been enforcing this idea that, no, the woman has to be registered as the owner of the land—(audio break). And only then can she actively decide to give it up to her husband. So they’ve created this additional hurdle, I guess you could say, for that additional practice to go forward. But, again, they won’t give us any data on that. And we don’t know if that’s really working or not. But it’s an interesting example. And I think, you know, sort of the whole sharia court, sharia tradition, it’s their customary practice that is going to take a lot of time—(audio break).

VOGELSTEIN: We were talking earlier about examples of where we have seen not only changes in law but actual changes in practice. You were saying Rwanda. And, Chris, we were talking about that earlier as well. Tell us a little bit about kind of what worked there, what lessons can we learn. And was that a particularly unique context, given that it—that many of these changes were post-conflict, at a time of change in the country.

STANLEY: Yeah, well, I should say that I did not—I was not—(audio break)—in Rwanda. That was actually, I think—(audio break)—British government-financed project. So they get all the credit. But from what I understand, in that particular instance, I mean, first of all, it’s post-conflict, so a lot of the traditional structures had already—(audio break). And then the president said: I want to do this. We’re going to title the country in five years. And, by the way, women are going to have equal rights. (Audio break.) So he had a very strong, top-down mandate. And they did it. Whether or not that’s going to hold in the next generation, I think—(audio break)—have inherent questions, because land rights are intricately tied up in family law. Just, you know, whatever the marital rights regime is or the inheritance regime is, that has a huge impact on the rights from one—you know, one generation to the next. (Audio break.) (Laughter.)

And I think—you know, but I think there have been other interesting examples. I—(audio break)—data that we had from Pakistan, where we did just complete a project, either in Sindh or Punjab. I’m sorry that I don’t have the—(audio break)—where, you know, this whole idea about, first of all, educating everyone, you know, about their land rights. But then they also put in some, you know, additional measures to make a comfortable environment for women to come into the offices, you know, which can also be an issue. In many cultures, you know, women having interactions with men outside of the family or the community is difficult.

So having—you know, a women’s-only entrance, having a high desk, having—you know, satellite offices having different hours that are not just regular nine-to-five working hours. It’s like going to the post office. You can’t ever go to the post office because they’re only open during regular working hours. It drives me crazy. So imagine if that is the only way you can get your land rights, you know, when you’re supposed to be doing your job, taking care of your kids, et cetera, et cetera, working the fields. So access I think is the other big issue. If I didn’t mention, that, you know, you have to make—and this is—and particularly in rural areas—you have to make the land rights system accessible. Can’t be about traveling to the capital of the department of county or province. That’s not going to—(audio break). You really have to—(audio break)—all of these accommodations. But that means understanding, again, what are the barriers.

JOCHNICK: Rachel, just to piggy back on that, and the question of what worked in Rwanda. I think the example of Rwanda is—perhaps manifests how embedded these land questions are in the bigger political dynamics of a country, of a village, of a family. And, as Victoria said, in Rwanda, that was a pretty unique situation. It wasn’t just that a lot of tradition had been broken out. It was also that women were being actively empowered in that country. And where women have more of a voice, you’re likely to see more openness to the kind of change that we need to see.

And so understanding land really as absolutely embedded and intrinsically linked to all of these other social and political dynamics is critical. On the flipside, though, that can lead to a paralysis that we’ll never get there because it’s just so complicated. And I think that has been part of the problem over decades, even where we’ve recognized how critical land is, that donors have been skittish about it. It’s too political, it’s too complicated, it’s too—it’s this, that, and the other thing. And I think there’s two basic answers to that.

First, we can’t make progress on a lot of these other issues if we don’t tackle land. I mean, you cannot address women’s empowerment, family issues relating to food security and income and all the rest of it, if women are left as second-class citizens. It’s just not possible. So we have to tackle it. And, secondly, it is possible to do if we don’t view it simply as an isolated intervention. I think where we have seen good progress is where land is tacked onto other existing efforts. So where women are already organized. Self-help groups, for example, or women’s movements, where we bring land to that sort of effort. Or where government already does a lot of work with communities. Tacking on land to those efforts.

So, for example, in India we worked with the government to set up women’s support centers, where it covered a whole set of social benefits, but they were linked to the women and to the family having an address, which meant they had to have their land titled as well. And so tying it into other interventions, I think, is absolutely critical. And that helps move us beyond the paralysis of it’s just too complicated and too overwhelming.

VOGELSTEIN: I think a really important point. And you’ve both outlined a range of interventions—I mean, education about rights, financial incentives, a little bit about technocratic changes that have made a difference, whether it’s creating a forum or ensuring that there are hours that promote access. So while this is certainly complex, there are interventions that have been tried and also potentially some that haven’t yet and should be. And so then I get to the question of prioritization and investment.

As you rightly point out, this is an explicit target in the sustainable development framework, which is a sea change from the prior development framework under the Millennium Development Goals. And we’re two years in now to implementation. So this is no longer academic. And so I think giving us a sense of if you’ve seen significant progress now that we do have this goal of equal land rights for women by 2030, have you seen changes over this even two-year period? I know that there are some changes with respect to even information that we’re collecting, data that we’re gathering. What do you think still really needs to be done if we’re going to come anywhere close to making progress on this goal in the timeframe that we have? And then we’ll open it up after that. So, Chis, Victoria, please.

STANLEY: I think—

JOCHNICK: You go ahead.

STANLEY: I think that the—you know, the Sustainable Development Goals do give us a nice—(audio break)—that is a global—(audio break). There’s one specifically on land. Total adult population to secure—(audio break)—rights to land, legally recognize and who perceive their rights to land as secure. And then it has to be disaggregated by—(audio break). So that’s a way of getting at gender—(audio break)—disaggregated that. Obviously, most countries don’t have that. So the big question still—and the U.N. Statistical Agency and the World Bank and others are working actively with governments to basically develop the systems that the need to be able to collect—(audio break). But that’s a long-term challenge that we’re going to have.

And I think, you know, in my own organization, the World Bank, I have seen a dramatic upscaling—(audio break)—rights. So we are putting literally more money where our mouth has been for some time now. So we are now actively, you know, preparing projects in a dozen countries. We had—(audio break). So I think that that is—I mean, there’s still, of course, you know—(laughs)—dozens more than we’re not working on. But that is something that demonstrates that there is, you know, financial—(audio break).

VOGELSTEIN: So, data, greater investment. Chris, what else do you think really needs to be done to accelerate the pace of change?

JOCHNICK: Yeah, I think we have seen an uptick in interest, for sure, across a number of different sectors. So donors are at least looking at this issue. And some additional funding—bilateral donors, in particular, have been good about it. The corporate sector, which we haven’t talked about, but businesses are also recognizing increasingly the importance of secure land rights, because they are—in order for their investments to be secure in developing countries, and we know that companies are increasingly looking to developing countries for fuel and commodities, and that land is increasingly scarce. So they have an interest.

One of the—one of the interesting conversations I had recently in India with some of the state governments was that—I was asking them why are they moving on these issues. And one of the first things they mentioned is that there is directive from the top that they need to improve their rankings in the doing business—doing better business under the World Bank guide. And that includes land rights. And so securing property rights and land rights is a basic economic issue. And it’s also a tax issue for many of these countries. And so there is political will. There is increasing corporate will to look at this. There are commitments from companies, particularly in the ag sector but also in the extractive sector.

And then we’re also seeing a—I would say, a surge of interest among civil society groups. And so there are traditional lands rights groups, like Landesa, out there. And there’s some coalitions. But it’s a fairly narrow sector. But now we’re starting to see women’s rights organizations, environmental groups that realize that tenure security is critical to deforestation and climate change. Indigenous rights, of course, have been there. Housing rights. Habitat for Humanity has a huge campaign now on land rights. So the humanitarian sector realizes you can’t rebuild after crises without secure property rights. So there is a number of different sectors that have come around to land and are just starting to incorporate it into the work they do.

And I think moving those trends along is really critical. So that means certainly more data gathering, but also more information about what interventions are working, more education and awareness-building, more support for grassroots efforts, more work on legal reform. It still needs to happen. So there’s a number of different spaces that I think we can—where investment by donors and others could get good traction. Really, from my perspective, you can almost not do well focusing on land. I mean, there are just so many ways that bang for the buck land makes sense no matter what your particular issue is. So it’s tough to just narrow it down to just one or two areas.

STANLEY: So, sorry, I would just add to that. Sorry. I think the point Chris is raising about the interest is—I think the other big one is coordination. Because I think that there is a lot of activity now in the sector by a lot of different actors, but coordination is still a weakness that we all experience, particularly at the country level. I mean, I’m working in a country where there are three or four different donors basically doing similar things, but, you know, the government isn’t necessarily in a strong position to coordinate that, and the donors themselves don’t—I mean, they do, but sort of, kind of, maybe when they have time. So I really think that sort of idea about coordinating and really understanding what these interventions are—where they’re successful.

VOGELSTEIN: So there’s an agenda for progress right there. Well, I’d like to open the conversation to questions. Please raise your placard, state your name and affiliation, and we’ll get to as many as we can. Please, yes.

Q: Thank you so much to the panel. And I—you know, this is a hugely important issue. My name’s Anne Marie Goetz. I work at New York University Center for Global Affairs, but for 10 years was also the Peace and Security Advisor to U.N. Women.

And land, of course, is hugely linked to male status and to definitions of masculinity, which is one of the reasons why it’s so hard to challenge men’s lands rights. So it’s more than just a legal issue. It’s profoundly political. I have three or four questions. I’ll be really, really quick. I’ll give the list.

First of all, on the issue of data, which you’ve both raised, is there any progress being made on actually putting figures on the percentage of women who own land in particular countries, or the size of the gender gap in the average size of land holdings between women and men, or in the value of land between women and men? Or, in the flipside of land poverty, which is having to pay rent, and urban poverty, and the number of women who are evicted because they can’t pay rent. Or in the proportion of rent—rent as a proportion of the income of poor women versus poor men. I mean, these are all aspects of land poverty which we’ve never been able to get figures on at U.N. Women—not good ones. And it’s crucial to have those figures to actually illustrate the size of the problem that we’ve dealing with.

Secondly, still linked to data, is there any information or data on land grabs, especially in transition countries, like Myanmar, which you mentioned, but Sri Lanka’s another good case, Nepal too, where you have land grabs by foreign corporations or even governments—in the case of China and state-owned enterprises in Sri Lanka and Myanmar—which is displacing huge numbers of people. Are there any gender differences in the experience of displacement of in the kind of types of people who are disenfranchised, or whose land has been alienated?

Third, you raised a really important point, Chris, that land rights are political, and that when women get more political power, as in Rwanda, as a project of gender quality and women’s empowerment, there’s change in land ownership. Well, Burundi, right next door, has just as many women in government. And in fact, women’s equal land rights was one of women’s demands in the peace talks, in the Arusha talks, but it was denied, and continues to be denied. So is there any research or any data on whether women’s capacity to take up land to assert ownership rights—whether that changes, particularly as women take up more space in local government.

So here, you know, I think Uganda could be interesting. My own observations from Uganda are very different. Ever since women were denied the spousal co-ownership clause in 1998 in the land law there, I witnessed myself in local government women being bullied into conceding or acceding to their husband’s alienating family land without consent, without women’s consent, without women’s participation. And when women asserted the right to buy land, if they even had the resources, it would be denied by local councils. So, yeah, I’ll stop there with those questions.

VOGELSTEIN: Anne Marie, thank you. So we’ve got a few questions on the docket there. Progress on data. Data on land grabs in particular. And also, the relationship between land rights and women’s representation at the local level.

Victoria, why don’t you begin. And then, Chris, please chime in.

STANLEY: Well, I mean, I think on the data question—I mean, the SDGs will require governments to actually report on this data. And as I said, the U.N. Statistical Agency and the Bank and a few other organizations are actively working with governments to develop the methodology to be able to collect the data, both on recorded rights and on this perception of tenure security, our indicator. I mean, I think that they’re making progress on all of that, but it’s going to be a while before we start to see that data coming in. It requires—I mean, most of this is being done through household surveys, the two-year process to get data.

There is administrative data available for some countries already. Mostly more developed countries in Eastern Europe, some Central Asian countries, some in—(audio break)—where the land agencies maintain their own internal data, and then they have that gender disaggregated. But I would say that that is something that we will see progress on—(audio break). I can’t remember what the reporting—(audio break). I don’t know that that—this is not going to cover, though, the whole question about eviction. That’s not data that we’re ever going to have—(audio break).

And on the land grabs, I don’t have data on—(audio break)—some data on this. I mean, the Bank has been—has been—has been—(audio break)—time. But I—(audio break)—I’m not sure that—I mean, for sure women are going to be impacted by that, but I suspect that whatever data that exists is not going to give the gender disaggregated—(audio break). And women are sort of part of that family—(audio break).

VOGELSTEIN: Clearly a lot still to do on data. Chris.

JOCHNICK: Yeah. There has been an effort over the last few years to gather data on land grabs. It is very tough to do. There’s a platform called Land Matrix that does its best to quantify the number of land grabs and how much has been taken. But as Victoria says, it’s—data is still a huge issue. I will also say there’s another interesting initiative recently that has been promoted by the Omidyar Network and others called PRindex which, working with Thomson Reuters has been an effort to start gathering data on land perceptions and tenure security, disaggregated in a number of countries. So that’s also a private effort to gather some of this information. But I think the SDGs will spur a lot of the push around data. And hopefully in a few years we will have more.

I would just say one other thing about the question of Burundi versus Rwanda. And I’m not expert in these countries in particular. But I do think it’s always a question of legal change and political championing, let’s say. (Laughs.) And that’s to say that when we go into a country at Landesa, and we’ve done this now for many years, we look for the political champions amongst the government. And often, if you find a couple of well-placed political champions, you can do all kinds of good work. And so it does often come down to a few individuals, which isn’t to say the whole question of women’s empowerment and putting more women in government generally isn’t absolutely critical. It is. But you might see some differences still, just because you have one leader that pushes it and in other countries you have more oppositional forces. So it is nuanced.

And I say that, though, because often people wonder, how can you make any progress on this? Governments are likely to be venal and corrupt. And there’s so much vested interest. But we have found champions in almost every country that we’ve approached. And there’s ways of making progress in the spaces, through those champions.

VOGELSTEIN: The importance of leadership there. Please.

Q: Hi. I’m Kathryn Pilgrim. I’m a journalist.

I’m interested in how you gather your data. And you talk about the cultural context. And sometimes there’s subtleties that you don’t get in data. How do you pick up on these subtle nuances that are often inarticulate—unarticulated in the society? How do you gather that data? How do you understand those things?


STANLEY: OK. Well, no, I mean, I would say that—you know, I mean, I think that the data gathering question—there are obviously, you know, sort of national-level statistics gathering. But in the case of the World Bank, anyway, when we go into a country to begin such a project, I mean, we do essentially a social assessment, you know, on the ground to sort of figure out, well, what is the context in this particular country and even, if necessary, in this particular area where we’re going to be working. Because, yes, it is very nuanced from a national statistical level.

JOCHNICK: I’ll just shoehorn an issue in on this one, because I’m less of a data-gathering expert than Victoria is, so I don’t have much to add to whatever she can provide. But I will say that one of the critical issues that we’ve found is that it’s not enough just to look at the actual formal status of people’s land rights. What’s critical often is their perception of whether or not they feel secure with the land right. And that’s critical because a lot of the dysfunction around insecure tenure comes from the fact that if you don’t feel secure you have a short-term vision and you either scavenge the forests if you—you know, if you don’t have secure rights to them. Or you don’t invest in your own land for the long term. You don’t plant the trees, you don’t fertilize, you don’t do the sort of things to improve the land because you don’t feel secure in the long term about holding on that land.

And in many cases, for women in particular, if they improve the land it’s at risk of being taken away from them. So you have this perverse incentive, that even where people might have the formal title, they don’t feel secure in it. And that is a critical part of the data gathering. And Victoria mentioned that that’s one of the things that will be covered under the SDGs, is perceptions of tenure. And how we get to those perceptions of tenure is still tough. But I will just put it out there as one of the existing challenges, I guess.

VOGELSTEIN: And important area for investment in the future. Please.

Q: Chris, you mentioned donor interest in these areas right now. Considering the opportunities for corporate donors in particular to work at a multilateral level or even a national level, where do you see the biggest opportunities right now for corporate donors?

VOGELSTEIN: And can you also identify yourself?

Q: Oh, sorry. Rekha Chalasani Grennan, Grennan 360.

VOGELSTEIN: Thank you.

JOCHNICK: I’m just curious about—why distinguish between corporate donors and private foundations, for example? Or what—maybe I’m missing the nuance of the question.

Q: Well, if there’s no distinction in this scale, then that’s—

JOCHNICK: If there’s, sorry?

Q: If you don’t see a distinction in this scale, that’s fine. But I think with corporate donors there’s obviously a lot of self-interest involved, which is why they tend to work at a multilateral level on these types of large issues, unless there’s a specific need with, let’s say, a supplier base. If you’re talking about, like, a Starbucks, with agricultural rights, for example. So I’m just interested to hear what you think of these opportunities.

JOCHNICK: Yeah, good, good. Because we’ve worked with a number of corporate donors. And they’ve tended—their foundations, like Nike Foundation, Ikea, Google, have not been so tied to their particular product. In fact, with Ikea, I think they can’t be tied to their business interests. But with many other companies, yes, the philanthropy is often tied to their business interests. So you’re likely to see interest where, for example, land is more of a critical issue. So we’re pushing some of the cocoa companies to—the chocolate companies to invest in women’s land rights in places like Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire because as a business issue it’s critical, but it also goes to all of this sort of corporate philanthropic goals as well. And so there’s a nice alignment.

We would see that also with some of the mining companies, where, you know, their interests are also, in many ways, promoted to the extent that communities have stronger understanding of their land rights, which sounds counterintuitive. But what happens in so many cases now is because there’s such a gap in formal legal oversight—the governments are basically absent—the companies often face these competing claims by communities and there’s no real way to settle them, because there aren’t—the communities don’t fully have the capacity to engage effectively and so that you’re just left with these conflicts, which very quickly spiral out of control.

And so there are increasingly, I would say, even extractive industries that are eager to promote land rights and things like free prior and informed consent, even though you would think that short term that’s against their interests. But many of them do see the longer-term interest in that. So, yes, I think there is potential for corporate philanthropy, but there is still a huge gap in coming around to these land rights questions, other than, I would say, you know, a handful of companies that have really sort of gotten religion on land.


Q: I’d like to ask more specifically about how you advance women’s land rights in situations of traditional or communal tenure, or when these coexist with more modern legal systems, particularly given the variety of cases women can find themselves in, as heads of household themselves, as wives with a husband present or, as is often the case, as head of household much of the year because the husband has migrated for part of the year, or most of it. I have to say, I find myself a little uncomfortable with the frequent citation of Rwanda as the example of progress here, because you’ve been dancing around the elephant in the room, namely the genocide. The reason why women have made so many progress in Rwanda is because after the genocide about a third of the men had been killed and the sex ratio was 60 percent female, 40 percent male. That’s also the reason why Rwanda is the only country in the world with majority females in the legislature. This doesn’t seem to me necessarily a pretty good example to follow. So I’m wondering, short of such extreme measures, what can be done in traditional tenure systems?

STANLEY: I don’t think Rwanda’s an example to follow in that sense, but I mean, I do think it offers us some ideas about what can work, obviously, in a very—that’s a very specific context. And that’s what I said at the start of this whole thing. I mean, I know this whole conversation probably feels very generic, because it’s very difficult to talk about land rights except in a general way because they are so context-sensitive. I mean, every time I go to a country and I think, oh, I—(audio break)—no, I have no idea until I spend a year trying to figure it out, really. So, you know, and that is one of the reasons why I think advancing this agenda has been such a long-term effort, because, you know, countries, governments, donors, the World Bank, quite frankly, has been like, that’s a little bit tricky, we’re going to stay away from that for the time being. They’ve only in the recent decade really gotten involved in this issue in a serious way.

So I—you know, I don’t have an answer to that question, I think, because it is going to depend on the specific context. So understanding that—you know, what is the power structure, what is the land or tenure structure in the country or in a community—is the first step. And then you have to figure out, well, then how do we—you know, changing people’s behaviors is a whole ‘nother difficulty.

Q: I guess to be more specific also, I guess one of the questions I would ask flowing from that is: Can women’s land rights only be promoted by moving to an individual or title-tenure basis? Or can this still be done within communal or traditional systems?

STANLEY: I think they can still be done within them. I think, though, that it will require, then, that tradition to change a little bit. And that is going to be a difficult conversation for many communities to have. I mean, you know—you know, I think, you know, for a lot of—and particularly in Latin America, I mean, our approach to indigenous communities has been, well, we just title the exterior boundary, and whatever you guys do inside is your business; except that, of course, in many cases that really is not helping at all. You know, then they’re really cut off. But then it’s a whole ethnographic exercise to really understand, well, what is the—what are the entry points here and how can we move the needle a little bit to support these women without destroying the indigenous land structures. And I don’t have—as I said, I mean—(audio break).

JOCHNICK: Yeah, and I would say we’re not reinventing the wheel there because this is not the first time that rights advocates have struggled with traditional authorities. I mean, this has been a struggle across all kinds of issues, and now we’re just thinking about how does it affect women with respect to land. But in all of those cases, we know that there’s a few things that will work and a few things that probably won’t.

Top-down solutions are very tough. Working with local organizations and people that have the trust of the traditional authorities is critical. Working with the traditional authorities, rather than just working with the women in those communities, is critical; educating and sensitizing some of the traditional authorities. For example, we did a project in Kenya addressing this particular issue where, under the new constitution, the traditional authorities were empowered—in a sense, they were brought under the fold of the constitution—and at the same time they were required to follow these basic provisions around women’s, you know, equality. And so working with those traditional authorities through local organizations to help them appreciate the fact that their status had strengthened, but at the same time they had to now abide by certain provisions was successful.

And, you know, we have some data about that; that was a USAID-funded project. So it can be done. And, in fact, Landesa and Resource Equity have just released a report looking at six situations of communal—six community-held land situations where we were—we and partners and others were trying to affect women’s land rights, and how those different interventions succeeded or didn’t succeed. So there is some data around this issue.

It is a very challenging one, though. And I think Victoria’s point is a good one. Many people figure you just demarcate the indigenous people’s land and you go home. But really, that’s only the beginning of it, and in some cases it makes it even tougher.

VOGELSTEIN: Why don’t we take more than one question, as we are starting to get towards the end of our time? Catherine, why don’t you begin, and then we’ll turn—

Q: Hello. I’m Catherine Bertini, a fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation. But my question goes back to time as executive director of the World Food Programme.

First, I love your discussion, both of you, on nuances, because that’s really one of the most important issues here. And I think many people—I don’t mean around this table, but in terms of partners—don’t understand those nuances. To the extent that you can train well-meaning people on those points I think is really important.

I wonder two things. One, if your description or what you work on as far as property rights are concerned include livestock. And certainly we’ve all seen experiences where women care for the livestock all day but the man owns it, and therefore selling it or doing anything else with it is not up to her, nor is the cash that comes to the family from it. So that’s one.

Two is, in terms of women in leadership, I love the discussion about needing to find women in leadership in order to discuss these, or at least find organizations of women, because they don’t come out when you’re looking for land title or anything else. We found the same thing at WFP when we wanted to end hunger, but we realized the cooks were the ones that we needed to partner with. Then you work all your way down.

So that comes to two other questions. One is how to do we deal with the staff issues, both from the countries that you’re talking to—because usually their staff are men, and then they can’t necessarily talk to the women—how do we deal with the staff as it relates to your staffs of your organizations and your partner organizations? And then how do we—what kind of—well, whether or not we have ideas today, but what kind of directions might we think about for organizations to work together on, for instance, helping to create women’s organizations that would be useful not only for Landesa, but for UNICEF or for WFP or elsewhere? Thank you.

VOGELSTEIN: Thanks, Catherine.

Natalie, why don’t you jump in and then we’ll—

Q: Thank you. Natalie Hahn. I worked with the U.N. for many years, mostly in Africa.

Two quick questions. Chris, to what degree have we been able to build on matrilineal lineage, particularly among the Ashanti in Ghana, in some cases the Oromo in Ethiopia? Isn’t that a real plus factor?

Victoria, how much of the agricultural lending is now going to women? Do we have a star country? Which country has been the most difficult?

And lastly, I’d like to bring up an idea of research which I think is very important. I farm and ranch out in Nebraska. What we find is that women ranchers and farmers are much more innovative. They mix livestock. They’re doing bison. They’re doing indigenous, nutritionally-rich cropping. But I think it’s an area that deserves study. Thank you.

VOGELSTEIN: So question on livestock, property rights, working with women’s organizations, matrilineal societies, and agricultural lending to women—a lot to tackle. Chris, why don’t you begin? And, Victoria, then we’ll turn to you.

JOCHNICK: I’m taking these mostly as comments rather than questions—(laughter)—because I don’t consider myself the expert in the room on many of these issues.

But I will say I know very little about the livestock question, but I think it’s linked to the cash-crop question, which is the same thing where the women tend the plants but the men at the end of the day are the ones that negotiate the price and get all the proceeds. And it goes to this question of how we understand land rights, that women often have use rights to certain property or land but the income that accrues to that work almost always goes to the men. And we’ve seen that in a number of situations. But we have not worked as much on livestock, so maybe Victoria can answer that particular issue.

In terms of the staffing, if I understand that question, it is trick. Landesa has spent a lot of time—we have a professional training program that is aimed at women and at women’s land rights, where we spend six weeks with women leaders in NGOs and governments to train them up on this. And I think it’s just one small effort to build a broader network of women professionals who are—have the capacity to work on these issues. And I think for exactly your point, that there—it is tough. Most of the staff tends to be male, and a lot of these issues would benefit from having more women engaged on the specifics of land-rights expertise.

And so we’re trying, in our small way, to build that, and through networking. But that remains a challenge. How do we coordinate campaigns? Victoria mentioned this as an issue. We’re trying—we’re working, actually, with the World Bank and others to try and build coordinated interventions. There are some already existing networks. The International Land Coalition is the most prominent one that brings together many actors. But there is a real need for additional coordination because of the fact that there’s so many new entrants. And many of those are not familiar with the landscape and are not well connected. So there’s much work to be done there.

And finally, Natalie, on your question of matrilineal, yes, we should build on those experiences. I, sadly, don’t have a lot of expertise on that issue. I know that Landesa has worked in those countries, and taking advantage of whatever norms or whatever political support can be gleaned from those systems is certainly a starting point. But how it’s worked out in practice is tough for me to go into. But I’m hoping Victoria will pick up on that question.

STANLEY: Well, I think on the matrilineal—I mean, I think, you know, it does also vary from country to country because it’s not—the matrilineal inheritance, it’s through the mother’s line, but then who is actually inheriting, is the question. Because if it’s through the mother’s line but to the sons, then that doesn’t get us very far. So I think we need to, again, really understand what is, in fact, coming out of that.

On the livestock question, I actually don’t have any answers to that, except that I think that, you know, this whole—we keep circling round this whole sort of empowerment plan, empowerment plan, political power, empowerment plan. So that whole sort of chicken-egg question is—unlocks a lot of the answers, I think, to this whole discussion. I don’t know which comes first. I don’t know if just giving women land rights is going to solve all of their other problems, for instance their livestock or, you know, access to markets, access to finance. It’s not.

So there’s so many other interventions that we’d need to then pin on top of that. But, you know, is—if you have women in leadership and political roles, is that enough to automatically get women’s land rights? No. I mean, so all of this—again, it’s a complex web. And we need to find, you know, the string that will at least give us an entry point into understanding it.

VOGELSTEIN: Well, clearly this is a complex issue, one we could continue to talk about. I recognize we’re at the end of our time. But there’s no doubt that the discussion has really illuminated not only the challenges but many of the opportunities by amplifying work in this area and further securing land rights for women. So please join me in thanking our speakers this morning. (Applause.)


This is an uncorrected transcript.

Top Stories on CFR


NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

The war in Ukraine marks a new era of instability in Europe. Countering Russia’s efforts will require a stronger, more coordinated NATO.


After the rise of Chinese power during the 2010s and failed U.S. policies in the Indo-Pacific, the United States should renew the Pivot to Asia and place the region at the center of its grand strategy.*