New Delhi: In a country where about 74% of rural women are engaged in agricultural work, only 13% have operational rights over the land they work on. Even though both the centre and the states have introduced a number of progressive laws and policies, India continues to grapple with the issue of women’s land rights. This, when secure and equitable land rights for women are among the key indicators of the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations.

While governments are working towards securing land rights for women in India, several non-profit organizations like Landesa are partnering with them to ensure more women own property— through inheritance, joint or individual titles.

In an email interview, Chris Jochnick, president and chief executive of Landesa which works in six Indian states, talks about what ownership of land means for Indian women, and how it provides an opportunity for them to assert themselves and claim benefits they would otherwise completely miss out on. Edited excerpts:

If we compare India to other countries where Landesa has been working, what are the unique challenges facing the country vis-à-vis land rights for women?

For various reasons, India is a unique country in terms of the potential impact land reforms can have on women’s rights and empowerment. First, because of the scale—there are 650 million women in India, and more than two-thirds of the total number live in rural areas where land is a fundamental concern. Second, because social hierarchies and patriarchal culture—challenges we find in almost all countries—are particularly strong in India, they create informal barriers to recognizing women’s rights. India has made progressive policy reforms in challenging social norms and patriarchal relations such as the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act of 2005 (HSAA), which accorded women equal inheritance rights to land and property. The implementation of the Act is a different story, because land is a state subject and there is still ambiguity around implementation of a central law like HSAA in states. Progressive laws have to be followed by strong and effective implementation and enforcement measures, which is somewhat still lacking across the various states.

Joint titling in India is looked at as a way to ensure women aren’t denied their rights. How much of house and land ownership on paper really translates into empowerment?

Having the name of a woman in title documents helps in raising her conscience about her individual rights and making her aware of her entitlement, which is the first step towards her empowerment. In our work, we have come across many cases where women have mentioned that having land rights not only raises their self-confidence and self-image, but allows them to be seen by others in a more dignified and respectful manner. When women have their names on land titles, they are able to access many other entitlements and benefits in their name. This is particularly relevant for single women, who are usually invisible in the landless identification process. Having land in the name of women is an opportunity for women to assert themselves for claiming a bigger space and entering a level to accrue further benefits. Having said that, it is important to keep in mind that this is only a first step and must be accompanied by making women (and men) aware of their rights and ensuring that women have the ability, capacity and support to exercise those rights. Landesa focuses much of its efforts on these additional issues. These steps take time, but they provide a critical foundation to opening the door to other rights and benefits for women and for their families.

Has Landesa done any studies in India to quantify the empowerment accruing as a result of ownership or perhaps you could speak about ways to think about such “outcomes" in the Indian context?

We have done several studies that indicate that when women own land, their decision-making ability is strengthened inside their families and within their communities (bit.ly/2FDArSg). They are able to access credit and other services, and are able to look after themselves and their families well. In the Indian context, and beyond, the outcomes can be seen as women being aware of their land rights and entitlements, and eventually exercising that right to access their entitlement and resources. Women’s empowerment has been seen as an enhancement in self-confidence and assertion of women’s rights and agency. This awareness and assertion can lead to other outcomes, and can be significant in reduction of gender-based violence, increase in mobility, and increased decision-making in both private and public spaces. Ownership of land also enables women to be recognized as farmers in the Indian context, and that enables them to access a range of services including credit, subsidy, etc.

For poor households with bare minimum income and limited land, what is the way to have conversations, and design action plans around gender equitable land rights?

Whatever limited land is available with a family, it is a moral and legal duty and right to share it equally with the woman. When a woman takes care of the family, children, house and even shares the work in the field, it makes sense to have conversations around sharing property. If the smallest piece of land can be shared between poor brothers as their inheritance right, then the same piece of land can be shared with the woman as well. It has been seen that having right over property makes a person more productive, and invest better in management of the resources. Women will be able to work better and have a sense of security if they also share the land equally. If the woman has right to land, she can be part of women’s collectives and use the land as a collateral for various loans, access subsidies and services meant for women.

One of the complex issues around land rights in India is how rural land is affected by urban sprawl in peri-urban areas. For instance, how farmlands are bought up and converted into farmhouses, despite there being a law stating that a farmer can sell land only to another farmer. What kind of legal and policy framework is required in this case?

We believe that the most effective way to address these issues is via zoning and land-use regulations that are sensitive to local needs, and the rights of current users and owners of the farmland. These are context-specific decisions, and in some cases, it may make sense to convert such agricultural land to non-agricultural uses (housing, commercial, etc.) because those uses serve more important social and economic priorities for the locality. When that’s the case, such land typically explodes in value and often farmers are not able to realize any of that increase because it is “taken/stolen" by land mafia or developers. It is important for governments to focus on the equity issues here and ensure that long-time landowning farmers are able to realize some or all of the increased value.

One related, key problem on this topic in India is that local governments are given little to no legal authority over land use planning. In most middle- and high-income democracies, local governments have substantial power over land governance—for both land use planning and to generate revenue through land taxes. This is not usually the case in India, with negative impacts for land governance and for democratization at the local level.

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