As seen on Global Food For Thought

By Renee Giovarelli and D. Hien Tran

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Renee Giovarelli is Executive Director of the Landesa Center for Women's Land Rights and D. Hien Tran is Advocacy Director for Landesa.

Forty years after the green revolution dramatically increased agricultural output in much of the developing world a new revolution is taking place.

As Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food spotlighted in an op-ed in the New York Times earlier this month, men are leaving farms for work in the cities across much of the developing world and leaving management of the family farm to their wives.

De Schutter’s op-ed on the feminization of farming is correct on many levels. The women left behind on the family farms face “pervasive discrimination” that inhibits their climb out of poverty.  This further burdens women who are already bearing a disproportionate responsibility for uncompensated household chores.

But De Schutter’s outline of the challenges women face: “discrimination denies small-scale female farmers the same access men have to fertilizer, seeds, credit, membership in cooperatives and unions, and technical assistance,” misses one central issue: women very often have very limited rights even to the land they farm.

In many parts of the world, women do not enjoy the same rights to land that men do, and the overwhelming majority of women farmers lack legal control over the land they rely on to survive.  In many cases they do not have access to the critical items De Schutter mentions like credit and training because they lack legal or socially accepted rights over land.  For example, in India, women farmers tell us that they can’t access agricultural extension services without the benefit of a land document.  In Rwanda, women farmers tell us that before they had land titles in their names (the result of a government initiative launched five years ago), they could not buy the good quality, heavily subsidized fertilizer available through the government’s agricultural program.

Indeed, although the op-ed does not mention land, De Schutter’s report to the UN Human Rights Council points out that access to land is critical to women’s ability to fully participate in the economy and in society.  As he explains, “land is more than an economic asset that women should be allowed to use productively.  It is also a means of empowerment, as the greater economic independence that results from land ownership enhances the woman’s role in decision-making and allows her to garner more social, family and community support.”

In fact, without secure rights to the land they use, women have no greater decision-making power or control than farm laborers.  In contrast, research suggests that when women have secure access and control or ownership over land, they are less likely to be vulnerable to some forms of gender-based violence and exploitation; their children’s nutrition improves and a larger share of the household budget is allocated to food; and the land may be more sustainably managed. 

Yet around the world, women face various forms of discrimination in relation to land ownership, control, and access.  Women are less likely than men to have secure rights to land and the land they do have is often smaller in size and of poorer quality.  Certainly, as de Schutter’s report points out, removing the obstacles women face in multiple areas, including the barriers faced with respect to land, is critical to address women’s rights to food.

The UN System Task Team on Post-2015 pointed out that “discrimination against women and girls impairs progress in all other areas of development.”  Likewise, gender inequality in secure rights to land can impede progress to achieving any development agenda – including any new framework that follows the Millennium Development Goals – that seeks to eradicate poverty, ensure women’s rights, and build an equitable, secure, and sustainable world.  The post-2015 process represents a critical moment to ensure that women’s land rights receive the attention that they deserve on the international development agenda.

D. Hien Tran is Advocacy Director for Landesa and Renee Giovarelli is Executive Director of the Landesa Center for Women’s Land Rights. Follow us @Landesa_Global

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