In the land of women: Domestic violence and land ownership in Asia-Pacific

Published on Friday, 25 November 2016

Published by Imrana Jalal on Friday, 25 November 2016

A woman with her child outside her home in rural Bangladesh.
A woman with her child outside her home in rural Bangladesh.

When I was a newly practicing lawyer, I complained about how my female clients who had no independent income and no property rights were treated by their husbands. An aunt told me that every woman should have her “Drop Dead Money.” When I asked her what that meant, she explained that if your husband beats you, evicts you from “his” home, or leaves you for another younger woman, you can say to him: “Drop dead, I have my own money!”

The same should be said about land. I understood that intuitively after 20 years in law practice. My female clients who had agricultural land (a rare occurrence), their own home, or joint titles to marital property with their husbands were treated significantly better than those without. It seemed that it was much harder for a man to beat his wife when she owned or partly owned the home they lived in. I had no hard data then, to prove what I now know.

Landesa research shows that secure land rights for women can make a difference to their lives. Where women have land and/or a secure home that they own (as opposed to renting), they are empowered economically and socially. In Kerala, India, only 7% of women who owned immovable property were subject to physical domestic violence, as opposed to 49% of women who did not. Owning property is thus more decisive than employment or education in reducing domestic violence. But Kerala is a strongly and comparatively matrilineal society, where, compared to the rest of India, women enjoy relatively more gender equality, autonomy, agency and freedom of movement than in the rest of India.

An interesting element of the study was the link between employment and income and domestic violence in Kerala. The research concluded that employment was not as strongly co-related to reducing domestic violence as land because a house is a visible reminder that a wife has an escape option. It is a sign of strength, empowerment and options, and a deterrent to an errant husband. A client of mine once told me that her husband, after several legal sessions after which she felt more empowered, said he had realized that she could throw him out of the house with a legal order. Although the violence did not stop completely, it was significantly reduced. Women don’t really want to leave a marriage, but they do want the violence to stop.

A similar study in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh—where women there enjoy relatively less autonomy and freedom of movement because the society is strongly patrilineal and patriarchal compared to Kerala—found that female ownership of property increases a woman’s economic security, reduces her willingness to tolerate violence, and can deter spousal violence. The research examined the link between women’s participation in paid work and ownership of property on domestic violence, and unusually drew insights from the testimonies of both women and men.

The study, conducted at the micro-level in 8 villages in Uttar Pradesh, revealed that women’s employment in regular paid work outside the household makes them 62-64% less likely to experience violence as compared to non-working women. The research also showed that women’s ownership of property has a large effect on reducing violence, but the study must be done on a larger scale to demonstrate what all women know intuitively – money, land, and the power that is derived from both, greatly increases protection against domestic violence.

ADB’s own Northwest Crop Diversification Project in Bangladesh had gender designs that resulted in a reduction of domestic violence incidence by 35%, after women farmers improved incomes through better access to high yield varieties, microcredit, and market access through women self-help farmer groups.

Women’s rights groups have lobbied so hard all over Asia and the Pacific for women to gain legal entitlement to matrimonial property after divorce. In our campaign in Fiji for the 2005 Family Law Act, this provision was the most difficult to convince legislators to support.

If there is some evidence that women who own land are less vulnerable to domestic violence, what are the implications of the overwhelming gender gap in land ownership in our region? The depressing data calls for more land rights for women, and greater shares in property.

On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, as we remember the 37% of women who experience gender-based violence in our region, we must call for policies that help women build and retain control over assets to increase their security.

A seismic shift in land redistribution is needed to close the gender gap in land control, access and ownership. Matrimonial property legislation also needs to be tackled so that women have a right to equal shares upon divorce.

I want to tell my granddaughters one day that a woman without land is like a fish without water.

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