Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Land rights – rural women’s powerful ammunition to fight poverty and hunger

June 30, 2016

In a recent blog, Melinda Gates observed that data is sexist. By this she meant that we have very little data on women.

I would add that our data has an urban bias; we know more about urban dwellers than rural folk.

And so it should come as no surprise that rural women are doubly cursed. We know little about them and the challenges they face.

I was clueless about this until I met Padma, a mother of two toddler daughters who was abandoned by her husband, thrown out by her in-laws’ family, and disowned by her own brothers.

After meeting Padma, my colleagues and I set about to answer this question: how common is Padma?

We have found at least one such woman in every ten rural families: a woman who is “dispossessed.” These  widowed, abandoned, divorced, unmarried,  or disabled women – without secure rights to land and therefore without power over their own lives – live at the mercy of their extended families, Sometimes they live with their children in out-houses or cowsheds,  unsure about their next meal. Often, the people on whom these women depend for shelter ill-treat them, exploit them and compel them to compromise their dignity.

Thus far, we have identified and verified the status of close to 34,000 single women with different land issues in my district alone (which has a population of about 2.5 million).

It was only when we understood these women, recognized the scale of the problem, and had identified the challenges they faced, that we could reasonably set about formulating a program to help them.

We recognized that rights to land, resources and other assets are critical part of the solution. Land in particular not only provides these women with a tangible asset, but also an identity and a legal address. Land can provide them with a powerful tool to fight poverty – creating opportunity. 

I have been working in rural India for more than a decade and I am more convinced now than ever before that if we want to address rural poverty we must address the land rights of women. In fact, I maintain that the UN’s ambitious global agenda of gender equality and poverty alleviation would be a far cry unless we take efforts to understand and measure, document, and address the challenges rural women face. Chief among them is land rights.

A good example of how the lack of data about rural women directly impacts policy is the Government of Odisha’s homestead land allocation programme.

Called the Vasundhara, the innovative program was introduced in 2005-06 to allocate small plots of government land to landless rural families without homesteads. But women like Padma, living in cowsheds with their children, weren’t eligible. Government policy assumed that these women living with their extended families were being taken care of by their families.

Our research, and Padma’s experience, showed otherwise. And the numbers are stunning. We estimate that the number of such “uncounted” single landless women in Mayurbhanj, where I work as the Collector and District Magistrate, constitutes about 12 percent of the total rural women population.

When we were looking for a way to address this issue, Landesa, a global non-profit supported by the Gates Foundation, approached us with an innovative program to identify the women through village health workers and then serve them through a woman-led desk at Women Support Centres. We are creating inventories of all single women who are in need of services to facilitate access to government land and social security entitlements. Unique Access Codes enable the respective officials track the women and their applications for various government services and to access data for planning and service deliver.                         

More than 5,000 single dispossessed women have been allocated homestead land so far; another 15,000 plus cases are in the process of being verified for land allocation.

These women can be trained to earn a secure and sustainable livelihood. They can support themselves and their families. They don’t need to be dependent on their extended family or the government.

What women do need is to be counted and to have programs responsive to their existence and their needs.

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