The Link Between Land and Gender-Based Violence

A growing body of evidence shows a correlation between gender-based violence (GBV) and land rights. Awareness of the possible GBV implications of land interventions is critical to understanding impacts on women.

How can land-related development programming better address GBV? As a start, interventions should include the whole community: men, women, and customary and formal governance institutions. To understand and address the challenge of GBV, projects should proactively incorporate GBV monitoring and mitigation strategies that will enable them to adapt and respond. Ultimately, such attention and research will result in better programming and a deeper understanding of the complex relationship between land rights and GBV.

What does the evidence show? Research from USAID shows that secure land rights can increase a woman’s economic independence and her bargaining power, and reduce her vulnerability to GBV – particularly in low-income, agriculture-based economies. However, the correlation between GBV and women’s land and property rights is highly variable and context- and culture-dependent. More research is needed to understand the many dimensions of this relationship, and its implications for social and economic development.

For instance, a 2005 study in Kerala, India found that women who owned their own homes had a lower risk of marital violence than women who did not own a house and land, and a later study in Uttar Pradesh concluded that “women’s ownership of property has a large effect on reducing violence.” Similarly, surveys conducted in rural Nicaragua found that land ownership among women increases women’s power and control within the marital relationship and reduces their exposure to domestic violence.

Conversely, some studies in sub-Saharan Africa found no correlation or a negative correlation between stronger land and property rights and GBV. For example, one study from Uganda attributed an increased incidence in GBV against women who owned land to strong traditional norms against women’s land ownership. The researchers found that when men felt their authority in the home was challenged, they responded with physical violence against their spouses. In Rwanda’s Eastern Province, a land dispute management project anecdotally found that women who sought to exercise their land rights, and particularly women who objected to infringement of their rights, were exposed to GBV within their families, perhaps because women’s land rights are not perceived to be legitimate by many within rural communities.

In Monrovia, Liberia, 2013 field research found a complex relationship between housing, land, and property rights and GBV. Where men controlled housing and land, they used that control over resources to physically control women. Conversely, however, if they perceived their power to be threatened or questioned, they sometimes used physical and/or sexual violence as a form of reprisal or control.

It is important for development professionals working on land issues to understand the potential for such unforeseen consequences and to take steps to ensure that programs do no harm.

What is clear is that stronger land rights for women provide an important source of income, economic independence, and bargaining power, which reduces women’s dependency on their partners and thus can reduce their risk of experiencing GBV. Studies in Bangladesh, Ecuador, and Ghana found that the effects of property ownership on GBV greatly depend on the community and cultural context: in areas where traditional norms dominate, gains in women’s property ownership and employment status seemed to increase the risk of domestic violence. Conversely, USAID’s Kenya Justice project, which educated the whole community, including traditional elders, on the importance of women’s land rights found a reduction in GBV.