January 7, 2016

More than just the land: a discussion of rural women’s equality

Rachel Friedman

The starting point was logical: land. But, as with many of the complex and thorny issues discussed at the Global Landscapes Forum, addressing gender, natural resources, and rural livelihoods involves thinking outside that box.

We started at square one: in rural areas of developing countries, women own less land, under less secure tenure. While the obvious conclusion was to fix tenure and land rights systems, the six person panel (one of the few in which women outnumbered men), moderated by journalist James Astill, quickly moved to a broader perspective to make links between underlying socio-economic and institutional factors and sustainable land management.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the Landscapes for People, Food and Nature blog.

Everyone agreed that women need better access to land and greater security in holding it. In this respect, equality is not just a human right but also makes economic sense. However, it quickly became apparent that having secure tenure rights would not be enough to change the status quo. “It’s not just one thing,” remarked Joan Cuka Kagwanja from the Land Policy Initiative (UN Economic Commission for Africa), referring to capital, technology, and information as key elements. For instance, Esther Mwaura-Muiru of GROOTS Kenya noted that knowledge of secure land tenure and access to finance (for something so capitally-intensive as agriculture) are critically important for long-term decision making about land management.

Gender and development discussions often turn to the issue of power dynamics, and this session was no exception. Control over land is one element of power. Andrea Ledward, of the UK Department for International Development (DFID), argued that who has access to and looks after the land is “fundamentally about power at the household and societal level.” She recalled a study early in her career where she mapped uses of land and natural resources in the Upper Volta region of Ghana. She noted that the “men who first demarcated the national park never even thought to ask women” about what areas they accessed and resources they used. Women were in many ways invisible, because they used overlooked resources (e.g. non-timber forest products) and “interstitial spaces.”

Environmental Steward or Economic Optimizer

As often occurs in addressing the topic of women and natural resources, issues of unequal access to financial and productive inputs, unsupportive policy environments, and ingrained power dynamics trumped the discussion of sustainable resource management. Yet, unpacking those made it less clear whether ensuring gender equality would result in more positive environmental outcomes.

It is generally observed that women apply fewer harmful chemicals and more often use agroecological practices. This can be largely attributed to higher levels of poverty, less land ownership, and more limited access to subsidies and banks. The question remains: if given equal access to finance, chemicals, and markets, would women cease to be ‘Earth Mothers’ to become forces of degradation? For example, Ruth Meinzen-Dick from the CGIAR Systemwide Program on Collective Action and Property Rights (CAPRi) cited a review of gender and sustainability that yielded mixed empirical results, such as a case in India where women ‘mined’ groundwater. At the end of the day, women are still practical economic actors concerned with earning an income and providing for their families.

But, there is also an (expected) deeper connection to concerns for nutritional provision and the role of women as caretakers of the household. Bringing in the conservation perspective, Inger Anderson of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) argued that more ecosystem-based approaches to livelihoods are employed by women, because they are more closely tied to nature as a product of gendered division of labour. Meinzen-Dick also described an example in Ghana where women who were aware they had strong rights to land were more likely to leave land fallow and to plant trees, ensuring longer-term sustainability of land use.

Perhaps the perception of women as being inclined to protect the Earth is still a romanticized view, but even in my own experience of talking to women cocoa farmers in Ghana, many shied away from using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers not only because they were expensive, but because of the effects of pesticides on crop nutrition and the agricultural ecosystem (especially in regards to the detrimental effects of pesticides on beneficial invertebrates).

A Squandered Potential

Whether or not women are ‘protectors’ of land, or suppressed economic players can distract from the central point of the issue: not developing formal mechanisms for the involvement of women in land use planning undermines the outcomes of conservation, biodiversity, social, and economic goals in landscapes.

Take the country of Kenya as an example. In addressing the impacts of climate change, not involving women or indigenous peoples in planning adaptation and mitigation strategies squanders a critical source of information, innovation, and mobilization of resources (human and natural). Mwaura-Muiru explained how over 50% of the population are women, yet less than 5% of these women have land titles. The lack of legal buy-in to land strips the credibility of women in discussions about land use and decisions on activities that affect them directly. In a recent GROOTS project, which placed grassroots women on the center stage in land use planning, the participating counties were shocked at the high value of descriptive  knowledge that was uncovered in consultations with women on the practical experiences they had in conservation. Mwaura-Muiru explained that ultimately “by giving women land rights, we also draw on the knowledge of experiences they have in conserving local resources.”  

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Rachel Friedman recently completed an MPhil in biodiversity, conservation, and management at Oxford University, focused on climate change vulnerability of women cocoa farmers in Ghana. Previously, she has worked in both research and communications on agriculture and sustainable development with EcoAgriculture Partners and the UN FAO liaison office in Washington. Currently working with a local food organization in Oxford city, she will be starting a PhD at University of Queensland in the spring, looking at ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes.

The photograph featured here was taken by Susan Beccio/IFAD.

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