Do Secure Land Tenure and Property Rights Necessarily Reduce Gender-Based Violence?

In association with Human Rights Day and the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Campaign, this commentary draws from three studies that show that the relationship between secure land tenure and property rights (LTPR) and reduced GBV is not always simple and direct, but rather, is contingent on the local social and political context. It is important to clearly understand this relationship to design more realistic and ultimately successful programming that recognizes how women’s lives are embedded in larger social structures and how women simultaneously occupy and negotiate multiple identities (i.e., mother, daughter, sister, wife, daughter-in-law).

Property ownership is one among a combination of assets that give women bargaining power within the household to address domestic violence, according to a study by Friedemann-Sanchez (2006). The study examined the effects of property ownership on women’s intra-household bargaining power in Colombia’s cut flower industry. Women had more relative power to address domestic violence when they had a combination of the following: 1) social capital (for example, the ability to move in with family), or 2) access to childcare that allowed them to work, which 3) gave them wage income to either purchase property or move out of their home and live on their own. Importantly, women who did not have a combination of these assets were not able to address domestic violence as effectively or at all. Friedemann-Sanchez’s work illustrates that property ownership is a necessary but not alone sufficient condition to increase a woman’s bargaining power and reduce the threat of violence within her household.

A 2011 report by Chowdhry illustrates how local political and economic factors and women’s inheritance rights may reduce violence against women and can change local marriage customs that often create opportunities for GBV. Marriage customs in India traditionally require a woman to marry outside of her home community and move to her husband’s family home. There is extensive research to show that a new daughter-in-law is subordinated in her new home by her mother-in-law, sister-in-law and husband. Chowdhry’s study of women’s land ownership in the state of Haryana illustrates how land scarcity and women’s land inheritance can change marriage traditions. In a number of cases, a husband chose to move in with his wife and farm her land after marriage. When a man moves in with his wife’s family, he must come to grips with becoming a ‘son-in-law’ in a way that most men in Haryana’s patriarchal society rarely do. In her own natal home, a wife is no longer a target of abuse by in-laws, and couples may have quite different relationship dynamics. In this particular political and economic context, Chowdhry’s work illustrates how women’s inheritance can change martial relationships. However, while many women who Chowdhry interviewed claimed that they suffer less physical violence when they live in their natal homes with their husbands, they still endure a husband’s verbal abuse. Outside of the marital relationship, a woman who has inherited a piece of land might find herself subject to threats and abuse from a number of male relatives as they seek to exert control over the land she owns.

Finally, Joshi (2013) explores the relationship between tenure security, urban service delivery, and GBV. In many slums around the world, individuals defecate in public toilets or in open spaces and are subject to verbal and physical abuse in the process. Joshi examined household (private) sanitation projects in urban slums in Kenya and Bangladesh. She argues that even if improved tenure security increases the likelihood of public or household investment in sanitation, private access to sanitation does not reduce GBV or the underlying gender inequality upon which it is based. Moving sanitation into the home does not reduce women’s exposure to verbal abuse and physical assault, because those abuses are not limited to her walks to the toilet. In fact, private sanitation provision may allow men to control their wives’ movement and interactions, keeping her in the private sphere (the home), but making her no safer. Thus while it may appear that tenure security and urban service delivery reduce violence, GBV may persist out of sight in the home and in society at large. Reducing women’s exposure to violence is not equivalent to reducing GBV itself. Reducing GBV also requires changes in men’s attitudes and behavior toward women.

I hope that this commentary spurs a conversation among policy makers and development practitioners who integrate LTPR into their work to consider 1) how LTPR can act as an analytical lens to study gender relations; and 2) the extent to which LTPR programming can facilitate structural change and address the patriarchal norms that govern many women’s lives around the world.