The Meek Shall not Inherit the Earth - Gender Equality and Access to Land

By Imrana Jalal

Land is power – immutable and unyielding. It provides succor and sustenance. Unfortunately, there is an overwhelming gender gap in land ownership, reinforcing the gender discrimination women face in other spheres.

One of my favorite books when I was growing up in Fiji was Margaret Mitchell’s, Gone With The Wind. Of course, this tale of American Civil War era life on a Southern plantation was about as far removed from my Pacific islands reality as it is possible to get. But no matter how politically incorrect it was for an aspiring feminist, or indeed anyone that abhors slavery, I wanted all those crinolines and cotillions.

In the book, Scarlett’s father says to her, “The land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for, because it's the only thing that lasts.” 
Land is power—immutable and unyielding. It provides succor and sustenance. Without land there is no collateral, and therefore, limited access to credit. For the vast majority of the region’s rural dwellers, without land, one cannot grow food.  In many farming communities, land ownership determines involvement in decision making over land use, water, agriculture, and forestry. 
There is also some evidence that women who own their own land or other assets are less vulnerable to domestic violence. Unfortunately, there is an overwhelming gender gap in land ownership, reinforcing the gender discrimination women face in other spheres. 
With some notable exceptions, women have not mobilized effectively around transformative structural changes in land in the Asia and Pacific region. 
According to Habitat for Humanity, women own less than 15% of property worldwide. In the Philippines, around 10% of all landowners are women. The Philippines is a little behind Malaysia, making up about 12-13% of the total. In Indonesia and Viet Nam, women comprise less than 10%. In the Kyrgyz Republic their share is 12%. 
The picture in South Asia is equally bleak. In India, women constitute 11-12% of landowners. Some 75% of rural women in India are agricultural workers, but only 9% own the land.
Despite an ostensibly equal legal environment, a recent survey in 17 PRC provinces, by Landesa, found that 17% of land contracts, and some 38% of land certificates, included women’s names.  
The data of course do not reflect non-deed “ownership” by women, where they have user or customary rights of access, not secured through legal means. However, these rights are insecure and depend on largesse.
In most of the Pacific islands, despite there being some areas in which land is “owned” matrilineally, this means more that land is passed through women, rather than women having control over it. Despite legal reforms, customary laws gainsay legal reforms. 
The story is not all depressing. Over 60% of land title registration deeds are held by women in matrilineal Bhutan. The Marshall Islands may be one of the few bright spots on the Pacific islands horizon. There, women have fiercely asserted their rights to land, through mass media advocacy campaigns.
Nepal provides an example of good practice. A tax exemption gives families the incentives to share land with their wives, daughters, and sisters. As a result, between 2001 and 2009, women’s land ownership increased 300%.  According to Census data, women’s ownership over fixed assets increased from about 12% in 2001, to 20% in 2011, primarily due to the enforcement of the rebate policy in land registration tax for land owned by women. In 2013, 28% of the 829,337 land parcels registered, was in women's names.
Through policy and legal changes in Lao PDR, land parcels registered increased from 1.6 million in 2012, to 2.1 million in 2013. According to the World Bank, some 40% of the parcel titles are in both spouse’s names, 30% in the name of females, and 20% males. The good practices of the Lao PDR and Nepal need replication.
Land is one of the last bastions of patriarchal privilege. This hegemony cannot be shattered without radical policy and legislative reforms. Political will is needed at a structural level. How about a target for women so that the percentage with protected rights to land and other assets increases in the post 2015 gender agenda? 
Women also need to contest biased inheritance and matrimonial property decisions by religious and customary law courts, in the formal courts of law. Women seem to fare better before judges in the formal mainstream courts, as they are more constrained to make decisions within Constitutional principles of gender equality. There is a string of court decisions attesting to this—one fair Judge, male or female, can make a world of difference. 
In the long run, women, like Scarlett O’Hara, need to be feistier in standing up for their fair share of land, for themselves, and for their daughters.
The meek will never inherit the earth.