What do rural women really want?

Rural Women in Korean Village, 1970s
Rural Women in Korean Village 1970s

Millions of families spend a lifetime trying to get it. Many feud bitterly when they do. For many older people, they would rather die than let an outsider buy it. No, we’re no talking about the family jewels here, but something more important: land. Fertile or meager, rocky or rich–just land.

For most of the world’s small farmers, land is like a healthy savings account. It assures social and economic security, provides access to get credit and-as a last resort-can always be sold in hard times. In many rural cultures, land ownership is also a matter of respect and dignity. It can affirm a family’s sense of belonging in the community, and it can bind two generations together in a time-honored transaction. If you give your land to the eldest son, he can care for you in your old age. UN Women reports that when women own land, they are less likely to experience violence at home and have more voice in how to spend family income.

What happens, then, to landless women? Bina Agawal, the noted feminist economist, reports that in India and Bangladesh there are many cases where widows and divorced women end up working as agricultural laborers on the farms of their well-off brothers or brothers-in-law. Even women who run farms when their husbands are working elsewhere have few rights, if any. They are unable to improve production, get credit, or adopt new technologies–all because they do not control the land they cultivate.

In Africa, women produce 70 percent of the continent’s foodstuffs. Yet, globally, women own less than two percent of the world’s land. In countries like Brazil and Kenya, landholdings for women are smaller in size and value than those of men. Ironically, the so-called “feminization” of poverty has become more lopsided just when women’s responsibility for food production is increasing.

That’s only part of the bad news. When prices for water supplies go up or structural adjustment leads to cuts in health services, poor rural women suffer the most. As their scarce resources are spread thin, the whole family’s living standard is lowered. Why? Spending on food, health and basic needs is more likely to come from women’s earnings. It is sad but true that men in similar situations are more likely to spend extra money on their personal needs such as tobacco and liquor.

Land remains the key. When women control land use, they reap social as well as economic benefits. Indian women in the Bodhgaya region reported that in communities where only men got titles during land reform, there were more family crises involving drunkenness and wife-beating. Where women received titles, the relationship between men and women improved. As the women put it, “We had tongues, but could not speak. We had feet but could not walk. Now that we have land, we have the strength to speak and walk.”

Delegates from 189 countries at the 1995 UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing pledged to work toward giving rural women the power to “speak and walk.” Indeed, the Platform for Action endorses the idea that all women have the equal right to inheritance an important symbolic step. But that is only a start. Land is the first bank account that rural women need.