Next year the world will reach a historic moment. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), development targets adopted by the international community in 2000, are set to expire. In their wake will come a new development agenda, commonly called the post-2015 development framework. This new framework is an opportunity to put human rights on the front burner of global development, which, despite progress in many areas, the MDGs ultimately failed to do.
This renewed emphasis on human rights could mean a sea change for women everywhere. Unlike the MDGs, which kept its focus on women’s rights fairly narrow—mostly on education, maternal health, and women’s political participation—the post-2015 development framework may allow for a more holistic conceptualization. One way it could showcase this broader scope is by tackling the issue of women’s land and property rights, an often overlooked yet crucial facet of women’s equality.
Land and property rights play a vital role in ensuring women’s sustainable livelihoods. In many developing countries, poor women often live in homes or on land that can be seized, sold, or bulldozed at any time. Forced evictions and property grabs are a constant threat, keeping their lives in a state of chronic upheaval. Women often cannot make decisions about the land they farm, even though they’re usually the farmers.
Ensuring that women have secure rights to land and property means they can invest in their homes and land, improve them, and benefit from them, all without fear of someday losing everything.
But as it turns out, women’s land and property rights have implications that go well beyond housing and tilled earth. Time and time again, the research has shown that when a woman has secure rights to land and property, she has more personal autonomy, greater economic security, and improved status in her community. Research also shows she is less likely to experience negative shocks to her life, such as HIV and domestic violence.
An Open Society Foundations briefing paper, Securing Women’s Land and Property Rights, details how these rights are linked to such a wide range of issues. For instance, secure rights to property can give a woman the economic freedom to leave a relationship that’s putting her at risk for HIV, and to manage the disease should she contract it. Land and property rights can grant her financial independence from an abusive husband or father. And secure rights to land—and the crops that grow on it—give a woman a higher degree of food security.
In 2012, my organization, the Global Initiative for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, along with the Landesa Center for Women’s Land Rights, were invited to submit our own paper to the UN about the post-2015 agenda. In that paper we made a strong case for the inclusion of specific targets related to advancing and securing land and property rights for women, as well as targets related to women’s access to productive resources more generally. As we argued, the post-2015 framework must recognize the transformative nature of women’s land and property rights with respect to a range of development goals related to advancing women’s empowerment, gender equality, food security, and environmental sustainability.
Since that time, UN Women, the UN High-Level Panel, the Open Working Group, and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network have also highlighted the importance of representing women’s land and property rights in the next development framework. Clearly a team of allies is beginning to coalesce.
Despite these positive signs, however, much work remains to be done between now and next year. Women’s land and property rights aren’t as visible as other issues in global development discussions. And while such rights have a sound footing in international human rights law, they are still sometimes contentious.
Not all countries provide protection for women’s land and property rights in law, and even in those cases where legal protections are in place, they aren’t always respected. In many countries it will be necessary to cultivate changes in customs, traditions, and patriarchal practices. Countries must also take proactive measures to guarantee women’s equality and to ensure that policies related to and affecting land and property rights prioritize women’s needs.
While much work is needed, including a focus on these rights in the post-2015 framework helps to point the international development agenda in the right direction. We must all get involved and advocate with governments directly. The Landesa Center for Women’s Land Rights has developed tools for advocates to do just that.
Next year has the potential to become a turning point in the way the world envisions development. Together, we can ensure that women’s human rights are at the very core.