A Farm of Her Own

Across Asia, the right of a woman to own rural land, taken for granted in the west for decades if not for centuries, is almost nonexistent in some countries, contributing to poverty and deprivation, not only for them but for their families.

Land ownership for women has become an issue with a plethora of organizations delivering reports delineating the importance of women and ownership. A recent policy report by the International Fund for Agricultural Development states that "Women's rights are often secondary, derivative and temporary, obtained through marriage, children, or other relationships with men and thus precarious when the male link is severed."

Land issues affect everyday choices and prospects. Land access and tenure security influence decisions on the nature of crops grown - whether for subsistence or commercial purposes. They influence the extent to which farmers are prepared to invest in improvements in production, sustainable management, and adoption of new technologies and promising innovations, the policy report said.

The US-based NGO, the Institution for Food Policy Research also issued a report last week by senior researcher Agnes Quisumbing, titled "Why Women Should Own Land," saying that "Having rights to land reduces the chance a family will fall into poverty because secure land often means a secure food source. It is also an important form of collateral. Unfortunately, even a married woman can be vulnerable, because marriages are not 'forever.'"

Across Asia, according to a 2011 report for the United Nations titled "Women's Access to Land: An Asian Perspective," only 10 percent of land is owned by women although ownership rights are on a par legally in China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Uzbekistan.

Women's access to and control over land has the potential to even the playing field in gender equality, according to the UN report. "Land is not just a productive asset and a source of material wealth, but equally a source of security, status and recognition. Substantive gender equality is both relational and multi-dimensional, cutting across race, class, caste, age, educational and locational hierarchies and can only be achieved if rights are seen as socially legitimate."

Even in countries where ownership rights exist for women, actual ownership is only a fraction of the total. In China, where 45.6 percent of women participate in economic activity and agricultural work, the percent of farmland owned by women is not statistically measureable. In Vietnam, ownership by women is only 8.8 percent despite the fact that 48.5 percent of women are involved in agricultural work. The Philippines and India are the best performers, but with only 10.8 percent and 10.9 percent of the farmland owned by women, according to the UN report. It is less than 10 percent in Thailand, less than 1 percent in Kenya despite the fact that women provide 70 percent of the labor.

The main obstacles to rural women's access to land and their ability to enhance productivity in large measure due to family structures, with Asian families remaining strongly patriarchal, and with the man usually recognized as the head of the household. Women are expected to obey and service them.

"Divorced and separated women are the most vulnerable, as lacking in male protection and supervision, they are seen as deviants and denied their rights," the UN report says. Many societies do not give daughters their share following marriage, with women finding it difficult to prove their marital share in the courts.

Distaff ownership of land can reduce both poverty and vulnerability, according to the IFPRI study. In many societies, a husband's death or divorce often results in a women's loss of access to land. Particularly in societies where women leave their home villages to marry, a women's property rights in the new village are very tenuous, leaving not only her but her children vulnerable. Women who return to their parents are often greeted with shame. Thus equal ownership granted at marriage protects both the woman and her children.

IFPRI research in Ghana found that where women had secure property rights they were more likely to act as stewards of the land, planting cocoa trees on land to which they had secure property rights. Where they were less secure, they shortened crop rotations to boost short-term production, leaving less time for the land to lay fallow and regain its fertility.

It goes without saying that ownership of land by women increases their bargaining power within the household. Interestingly, according to the IFPRI, in many parts of the world men and women spend money differently, with women more likely to spend on food, health care and education for their children, increasing investment in the next generation and contributing to overall poverty reduction.

Policymakers and development practitioners are starting to take heed: Some states in India, for example, have begun issuing land certificates with both husbands' and wives' names, the IFPRI report said. "A number of civil society organizations have increased campaigns for legal literacy, working through community-based legal aid workers, to provide people much-needed education about their rights and how to stand up for them. Grassroots women's organizations are enlisting male elders as champions for women's land rights."

In Southeast Asia, recognized as central to both the peasant economy and trade, women have considerable voice in decision-making in the household, according to the UN study. In Indonesia, in 70 percent of the households interviewed, the woman was the main financial manager and decision-maker.

In Zhejiang in only 10 percent of women had their name on the land contract, but 68 per cent controlled the daily expenditure and budgeting of the household, gaining control over at least a part of their husband's incomes

Younger women in China, post-2003, have sought to redress the imbalance in access to land through seeking other employment, especially in the industrial sector. Women within marriages are however also insecure, and in the absence of access to independent resources, especially to house-plots, experience much higher levels of violence within marriage, the UN study said.

Across Southeast Asia, a different picture emerges, with Javanese, Malay Muslims, Catholic Filipinos and Buddhist Thai all governed by bilateral kinship systems, wherein both parents provide identity to the child.

"Property is divided equally between sons and daughters, with no discrimination in the allocation of resources, residence patterns are flexible and there are no severe restrictions of women's movement and sexuality, even among Muslims," the UN study said.

Things are however changing in response to state policies and market opportunities. In the Philippines, Quisumbing, in another report, found 'a persistent preference in land bequests in favor of male heirs across generations.' This is a result of rice farming engaging and providing higher returns to male rather than female labour, with women having an advantage in non-farm jobs.

Interestingly, Quisumbing's study found a gender gap in schooling in favor of girls, leading them to postulate that land and schooling are substitutable means of transferring parental wealth to children. In Indonesia women's inherited holdings of paddy land were greater than that of their husbands, reflecting the tradition of matrilineal descent, but equally women's primary role in paddy cultivation.