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In the Developing World, Property Rights For Women Are About More Than Just Housing

Woman with Berries
Photo credit: Flickr user TREEAID

“Today, over 1 billion urban women in developing countries lack the ability to fully exercise property rights and, as a result, lack formal land titles and savings accounts.”

The following story is from Insights:

When her younger brother desired more land to breed his cows, per Cameroon customs, Elizabeth Maimo had no choice but to hand over her piece of property to him, reducing her yields and income by more than 50 percent. According to Maimo, in an article published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the culture dictates that a woman who will ultimately marry into another family has “no right to own a piece of her father’s land.”

Maimo’s story is not unique in the developing world, where millions of women—including poor and vulnerable migrants, widows, victims of domestic abuse, and single heads-of-household—often lack property because of their gender.

In cities, limited property rights affect more than 80 percent—about 1 billion—of urban women. There are three primary reasons that women cannot fully exercise property rights. The first is that about 350 million of these women live in countries where there are unequal formal property rights, most prevalent in South Asia and the Middle East / North Africa region. In other words, the laws and policies either do not exist, discriminate against women, or are not inclusive of women. Another 300 million live in countries—primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia—where cultural norms prevent equal property rights, meaning that even when there are laws on the books, other forces keep women from their rights in practice, whether it’s social pressure, threats, or legal systems that allow customary law to trump statutory law in court. The final third live in countries where rights may be equal, but women lack access to the tools and means to exercise them, from formal land registration and official land titles to saving accounts and collateral backed loans.

Women Land Owning Statistic

Yet, as women begin to make up a greater portion of urban residents in developing countries, there is additional urgency to improve women’s property rights in order to safeguard their own economic and social agency, and the resilience of cities in general. However, little funding and few programs exist to address urban women’s property issues. Research and interviews with funders, practitioners, and experts revealed several key observations, which can help guide future efforts.

For one, property rights are not just about access to housing—they’re also about empowering the social and economic position of vulnerable women through less expected, but equally important, channels. Property rights are typically associated with access to housing, a critical need for urban women. Secure housing provides safe shelter and protection from homelessness after divorce, widowhood, job loss, or other emergencies. But it also provides social and economic benefits. For example, one study in India found that 7 percent of women who owned land and housing experienced domestic abuse, compared to nearly 50 percent of women who did not. Another study in Mumbai demonstrated that secure housing could increase women’s weekly earnings from home-based businesses by 35 percent.

Another, perhaps less-expected, property right that emerged as a crucial resource is the right to economic property and, specifically, savings accounts. Savings accounts in a woman’s name offer a basic form of security and insurance by providing a confidential, secure, and formal way to protect wages. These savings can then be drawn on in the case of unforeseen circumstances. One study from Nepal showed that 78 percent of poor women who were offered a savings account actively used it and, as a result, increased their monetary assets by more than 50 percent. Savings accounts also create greater social agency and bargaining power for women, and often benefit their families through increased investment in nutrition and school fees. These women are also more likely to leave exploitative or dangerous jobs, such as the unregulated factory work that many urban women perform. And unlike housing, a formal savings account is portable: It stays with the woman even if she decides to move.

Technology is revolutionizing the ability to access and claim property, but these solutions may still leave out poor women. New, more accessible technologies, including affordable GPS devices and open-source mapping platforms, are allowing anyone with a mobile phone or internet connection to input occupancy and ownership information into a community map. One standout example of community mapping exists in Kibera, a slum outside of Nairobi, Kenya, where community non-governmental organizations and social enterprises such as Map Kibera and Spatial Collective work. These organizations organize and train slum dwellers to use hand-held GPS devices to create maps of homes and landmarks, which gives them informal claim to their land and acts as “evidence” in negotiations with municipal governments. Further, technology-enabled savings accounts, such as mobile banking and smart cards, are creating more convenient, confidential, and effective ways to save. But there is evidence that urban women are less likely to use technology-enabled solutions than men. Therefore, the potential of these solutions will be best realized with program design features that specifically incorporate women users.

While property rights for women are often framed as a legal issue, funders, governments, and the private sector all have a role to play. Funders are in a position to pilot and evaluate interventions to identify cost-effective solutions. As solutions become ready to scale, municipal governments will need to adopt policies that are supportive of women. The private sector is also key, both in its role as an employer of women and as a provider of services, including financial products.

Additional resources and collaboration among stakeholders have the potential to identify effective, scalable programs that could positively impact the over 1 billion urban women who are unable to realize their full potential because of insecure property rights.

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