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Want to change the world? Give women land rights

© Bruce M Beehler

Editor’s note: October 15 marks the U.N. International Day of Rural Women, which recognizes the critical role and contribution of these women in enhancing agricultural and rural development, improving food security and eradicating poverty.

I just searched for an image of a farmer on Google. The page loaded with a splash of hearty white men in overalls standing in rich green fields. I started counting … it wasn’t until the 24th image that I saw a woman farmer.

When you hear the word “farmer,” the person you picture is probably male. However, this stereotype is far from reality. In fact, women compose up to 70 percent of agricultural labor force in some countries. Here in the U.S., the number of rural women farmers has nearly tripled over the last three decades, and they now make up about half of farmland owners in the Midwest states.

The rural livelihoods pursued by billions of people around the globe are intimately linked to the land, yet half this population faces greater challenges than the other when it comes to making decisions about land use.

Women’s land tenure — their ownership of, access to and control of land — remains limited in many parts of the world. For example, in Peru 30 percent of women are agricultural holders (the primary decision-makers for their farms); in most of Africa, that percentage is below 20 percent. Which countries have the highest percentage of female agriculture holders? Latvia and Lithuania, with 46.8 percent and 47.7 percent, respectively.

But given the range and scale of issues facing rural women around the world, why do farming and land tenure matter?

As explained on Conservation News last week, land tenure is a key element for conservation success, human well-being and sustainable livelihoods. Women and men are more likely to make environmentally sound land management decisions when they have secure ownership and know they can benefit. But land tenure is also complicated by lack of clarity over access to, control over, and ownership of land.

For example, a woman farmer may be given access to a second-rate plot of land by her husband or community where she is expected to provide food for the family. However, if she cares for the land and improves its soil quality, she could risk losing the land to her husband or other community leaders for growing more lucrative crops. She has access, but no control and no ownership.

In many countries, laws dictate joint ownership of land by husband and wife, which has proven to be a useful tool for improving women’s access to and ownership of land. However, in practice, she often has little to no control over how it is used or when it is sold.

Matrilineal societies in places such as Papua New Guinea, are sometimes held up as examples of where women have more land rights, since land and other assets are passed down from mother to children. However, while this might confer some level of status and security, there is no guarantee that even these women will be consulted or have an active role in decisions about land usage or sale.

In their roles as farmers and household managers, rural women use and interact with natural resources on a daily basis — from small-scale agriculture, to harvesting fuelwood and water to caring for animals. This gives them tremendous power to influence the ecosystems they depend on — positively or negatively — with their actions. Strengthening rural women’s land tenure (along with supporting access to information, technology, credit and markets), so they can access and control those resources they depend on, helps improve food security, health, income and savings.

Conservation International is working to address some of these issues through the Vital Signs project in Africa which collects agro-ecological and social data and develops tools for decision-making. The project is working with community members including Mama Churi, a small-scale farmer in Tanzania who depends on nature — her bees and crops — to earn a living and feed her family.

On this day celebrating rural women around the world, we should reflect on the importance of supporting their ownership of, access to and control of land — not only because it is good for women and their families, but because it’s good for the world.

Kame Westerman is CI’s advisor for gender and conservation.

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