Promoting Land Rights to Empower Rural Women and End Poverty

October 14, 2016

  • Seventy-eight percent of the world's poor live in rural areas and work mainly in farming.
  • Women living in rural areas suffer disproportionately from poverty, far worse than rural men or men and women living in cities.
  • To mark the International Day of Rural Women (October 15), the World Bank takes a look at the important role that property rights play in expanding economic opportunities and securing assets for women living in rural areas.

For Nitsu Simachew, a widow in rural Ethiopia, life was a constant struggle to maintain control of the small plot of land she depended on to support her four sons and daughter. “There were always boundary disputes and people grabbing land that didn’t belong to them,” said her son, Mengaw.

For many women, proof of land ownership can end years of economic uncertainty, vulnerability, and fear. In Ethiopia and across the globe, the World Bank and its partners are dedicating resources to help secure land rights for women, particularly in rural areas, where women are at the bottom of the economic ladder.

“I am so happy to have this certificate,” said Nitsu, displaying an official property deed issued by the Ethiopian government under a World Bank-sponsored program.  “Now everything is recorded and legal in my name and no one can take away my land.”

giving landowners clear title to their property, with women among the most disproportionately affected.

" In rural areas, land is a valuable—and sometimes the only—asset. For women, land can hold the key to economic empowerment and security; giving them more influence over finances and household decisions, access to credit to start a business or improve their farm’s productivity and, in many cases, the means to support their family. "

Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez

Senior Director, Social, Urban, Rural and Resilience Global Practice, World Bank

The UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which guide development efforts, recognize the importance of property rights for women, especially in rural areas. The SDG has set goals so “all men and women have equal rights to ownership and control over land by 2030” and a target of doubling “the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers, especially women.”

“Reaching this goal requires pro-active policies to ensure equal land rights for women,” said Jorge Munoz, who manages the land group at the World Bank.

Property rights can be a complex web of national and state laws, customs, traditions, and histories that vary from country to country, even town to town.

“Even when the laws offer equal protection, sometimes traditions and customs take over, especially in rural areas,” noted Victoria Stanley, a senior land rights specialist at the World Bank.

In Kosovo, for example, World Bank development experts are working in a village that is populated largely by war widows, yet less than 8% have title to property.  Most of the landowners should be women, but culture and traditions discourage women from ownership.  

Even when there are no male relatives to claim title, the time, cost, and complexity of surveying and registering land presents huge obstacles for women, leaving them without information or legal protection for their property.

To break the impasse, the World Bank turned to technology; surveying property with small, unmanned aerial drones that involve the whole community in the mapping process and help the government produce a national land registration system. The drones offer mapping services in a matter of days or weeks, at a fraction of the cost and time of conventional surveying using manned aircraft.  

From Kosovo to Ethiopia to Honduras to Vietnam, the World Bank and its partners are helping women gain equal treatment in obtaining land rights in every region of the world.  

One of the Bank’s largest portfolios in land administration and management is in the Europe and Central Asia region, which, since the fall of communism, has witnessed one of the largest land reforms in history. An example of the Bank’s work in the region can be found in an agricultural land registration  project in Tajikistan,  where nearly a quarter of the issued land certificates went to women, giving nearly 23,000 female farmers title to land.   

Some other examples of World Bank-supported work include:

  • In Ethiopia, the government’s large-scale land certification effort—covering 6.3 million households—improved women’s economic and social status. Previously, women didn’t have property rights, and divorced women could expect little more than a sack of grain as compensation from their former husbands. Now, they are entitled to 50% of the property.
  • In Indonesia, post-tsunami recovery efforts in Aceh included community mapping and issuing of over 222,000 land title certificates, about one-third going to women. In Vietnam, 60% of the five million land-use certificates were issued in the name of both the husband and the wife.
  • In the aftermath of Cyclone Phailin in 2013, the government of Odisha State in India provided land and financial support to construct concrete houses for the poor in 12 cyclone-vulnerable villages. Land allocation was carried out either jointly in the name of husband and wife, or, in the case of single women, individually.