The advocate advancing gender equality through land rights


Champions of Change is an initiative started by the Pathfinders to highlight advocates who have made an impact in their communities and helped to create peaceful, just and inclusive societies (SDG16+). It provides an opportunity to feature individuals, businesses, and organizations doing extraordinary things to empower and inspire members of their communities.

Shipra Deo leads Landesa’s work for gender equal and inclusive land governance in India. She is passionate about the gender dimension of social development and specializes in designing and implementing gender responsive strategies and programs including those related to land. In the recent years she has done intensive research on inheritance by women and gendered aspects of land laws. Her work in the past two decades has focused on expanding opportunities for rural women and girls enabling them to have more control over their lives. She has designed and led multidisciplinary programs in a range of thematic areas that include women’s land rights, violence against women, agriculture-based livelihoods, empowerment of girls, collective action, and institution building.

We spoke with Shipra Deo to learn more about her work and what drives her:

What ignited your pursuit for more peaceful, just and inclusive societies?

There is increasing evidence from around the world that secure rights to land can radically transform a woman’s life, in rural and urban areas alike. The right to land gives her the courage to assert herself, expands her sphere of freedom and improves her quality of life. Owning land strengthens women’s sense of identity, provides a basis for economic independence, and increases their participation in household decision-making. It has a lot of other powerful effects, including better nutrition and food security for families, improved family health, educational and nutritional gains for children, and the potential to reduce domestic violence.

Despite a strong recognition of the importance of women’s land rights, current figures indicating women’s access and ownership of land are inexcusably low. UN estimates suggest that less than 20% of the world’s land holders are women, and reports by the World Bank show that in 40% of the world’s economies, women face legal barriers to their land and property rights.

This gap inspires me to work tirelessly for the land rights of women. The more I listen to women — as they talk about their past experiences, their present needs, and their hopes for the future — the more confident I become that a piece of land has the power to break this cycle of oppression and lift women up, empowering them to live a life of dignity, autonomy, and self-worth.

To achieve a peaceful, just, and inclusive world, what does success look like to you? And what are the key factors in achieving this vision?

The path to a peaceful, just, and inclusive world is not simple, given existing deep-rooted and multifaceted systemic challenges. The most significant thing that I learned at Landesa is that we need to address issues at the root of a problem, rather than just addressing the symptoms, to catalyze change in systems that result in leveraged, large-scale impact.

Every small step that takes us closer to a larger, positive system-wide change is a success to me. To bring about a change, I think first and foremost we need to recognize women as individuals in their own rights, in the word of law, as well as in spirit. We need to consider women equal to men — equal in dignity, equal in value, equal in rights.

To close the gender gap in land ownership, it is imperative to launch a thorough gender audit of all land laws. It is equally important that officials at all levels of the implementation machinery are sensitized and that monitoring mechanisms are improved to consistently track progress towards strengthening land rights for women. By taking these steps, more of India’s women will be able to exercise their capabilities, provide for and protect their families, and realize their inherent human rights.

How does your work contribute to the SDG16+ goals?

Rights to land offer people a strong foundation for a life of dignity and prosperity. Globally, women experience poverty and deprivation more harshly than men. Secure access to land has the power to improve the outcomes and opportunities for women to live life fully.

The goal of my work at Landesa is to use land rights as a tool to help women thrive equally. A host of international treaties, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, acknowledge the centrality of land to fulfilling human rights. Statements by treaty monitoring bodies, international rapporteurs and working groups have also interpreted women’s rights to land as fundamental to fulfilling rights to livelihood, housing and food, as well as rights to an adequate standard of living, self-determination and cultural participation.

But there is a gaping difference in the lived realities of women. Most often, land laws don’t fall in line with these commitments and cannot pass the test of gender equality and justice. The language of land laws — especially as I see in India — is shockingly patriarchal and frequently assumes a male to be the primary landholder. Even when some progressive changes are made, they are undercut by legal loopholes, gaps in implementation, lax enforcement, and sex-discriminatory mindsets and practices.

The reason for these disparities is rooted in structural gender inequalities based on discriminatory social norms and customary practices. Those in charge of designing and implementing our land laws and policies are often subject to the same gender-specific biases.

Goal 5 of SDGs lucidly maintains: ‘Gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls is a goal in itself as well as a catalyst for achievement of all the other goals.’ SDG Target 5.a challenges countries to ‘Undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources, in accordance with national laws.’ Overturning these biases and removing obstacles for women to own land is the core focus of my work at Landesa.

How has COVID-19 impacted your work? Are there any lessons learned from the pandemic that you hope to apply in future work?

The surreal times we are living in — the times of COVID-19 — have emerged in the context of a lot of pre-existing challenges. One of them is the enormous violence that women encounter all the time because of their gender.

The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women is visible all around us. This is a familiar pattern, which becomes pronounced at critical times, and it shows us time and again how deeply embedded gender inequality remains in the world’s political, social, and economic systems.

While COVID-19 has impacted the pace of some of our work on the ground, it has also reaffirmed that to reduce these impacts and increase women’s resilience, it is important to address the systemic inefficiencies that consistently push women to the margins. This means allowing more women to participate in democratic systems, allowing more women to be there in the decision-making structures including those that determine land governance.

During the lockdowns, the return of stranded migrant workers walking tirelessly to reach their homes was, undoubtedly, an expression of extreme distress but also of their connection with land — the place where they are born and grow up and still maintain a strong bond. It is high time governments think about prioritizing stronger rights and clear land records for people. It is important to actively engage communities — both men and women; and other marginalized communities — when boundaries are being marked or when field validation of the property owners is being conducted. Without effective community participation, conflict and discontent are bound to result from processes that attempt to define land rights.

Ownership of land by women is critically important in these contexts. There is enough evidence that when women have clear rights, it not only helps women to be resilient, but also allows entire communities to flourish. State governments should make plans to allocate common lands to groups of women. Criteria for identification of landless and land allocation to landless should be revisited and revised to embrace more people. There should be explicit guidelines to recognize and prioritize women as the titleholder.

Report: “Gender Inequality in Inheritance Laws: The Case of Agricultural Land in India” (Landesa)

What advice do you have for those seeking to make a difference for a more peaceful, just and inclusive world?

Strengthening land rights of women in a society that remains in the grip of patriarchal values is undoubtedly a gigantic challenge. We need to face it urgently and sincerely since land tenure and property rights interventions can shift long-standing social and power dynamics. If carried out sincerely, a land rights program for women can be an important catalyst in bringing the kind of revolutionary change that can correct the existing bias and violence against women and girls and grant them the rights, dignity and equality long due to them.

Intensive efforts are needed to sensitize various stakeholders — the policy makers, bureaucrats, judicial officers, community leaders — towards accepting women’s claims as lawful and just., These stakeholders will play a crucial role in bringing about change and their commitment to just outcomes must be strengthened and reinforced. The government also has ample opportunity to reset norms within the land governance system. And finally, the strength of women’s voices must not be underestimated. There should be concerted initiatives to raise consciousness and awareness among women and communities.

The collective effort of government, NGOs, research institutions, and international organizations can help build a fairer and more equitable land ecosystem for women.

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