Letting (Some of) India’s Women Own Land

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This month, 600 women gathered under a huge blue-and-yellow-striped tent in Baripada, a small city in Odisha, a state in India’s east. They were among India’s most neglected people. Widowed, abandoned or divorced, many had ended up living like servants in the households of their fathers, brothers or in-laws.

But on March 5, each woman clutched a single light-green sheet of paper that would change her life: a patta, or title to a small plot of land.

The women were among 1,800 getting pattas that day across the district. The documents were hard-won. The battle for women’s land rights in India pits progressive law against oppressive culture — and the culture has largely prevailed. But the pattas show that small victories for law are also possible.

Agriculture in India is a woman’s occupation. More than three-quarters of Indian women make their living as farmers — a far higher percentage than men, who seek nonfarm jobs. Yet less than 13 percent of land is owned by women. A study financed by the World Bank found that women own only 3.3 percent of the land in Odisha.

The consequences are enormous. Without title, female farmers acting on their own don’t have access to credit, subsidies, government programs for seeds, irrigation or fertilizer. They cannot get loans and do not invest to improve their yields. They live in fear that someone more powerful — which is everyone — can kick them off their land.

When women’s incomes suffer, so do their children. More than 40 percent of all children under 5 in India are malnourished. And India’s agricultural productivity is needlessly diminished.

Landlessness also raises the risk of domestic violence, said Bina Agarwal, a longtime professor at the Institute of Economic Growth at the University of Delhi, and now a professor of development economics and environment at the University of Manchester in Britain. In 1994, Agarwal wrote “A Field of One’s Own,” arguing that landlessness is the single most important factor in the second-class citizenship of women in India. The book became the founding document of the women’s land-rights movement. “If a woman owns land, the husband would know that the woman has an alternative place to go. It hugely increases women’s bargaining power within marriage,” she said. “She knows she has an exit option that’s credible.”

Landlessness is both a cause and a product of women’s subjugation. In most of India, a bride becomes part of her husband’s family, living in his parents’ house. Her possessions pass to them. A son, by contrast, brings his wife to his parents’ house. So if parents want to keep property in the family and reward the child who supports them in their old age, they leave land to their sons. (Paying dowry to the daughter’s new family is the customary substitute for leaving her land.)

Agarwal said that women owned a higher percentage of the land in places where local culture permitted a woman to bring her husband into her family, marry a cousin, or marry inside her village and stay there. That way, a daughter’s land stays in the family, or at least nearby.

India’s attitudes toward women and land remain a bewildering mixture of progress toward modern standards and centuries of discrimination.

Fortunately: In 2005, India passed the Hindu Succession Act, which covers how more than 80 percent of the country inherits. (Agarwal’s advocacy was crucial.) The law gave daughters equal rights to inherit land.

Unfortunately: New law? What new law?

“India has a plethora of very progressive legislation that ensures land to the woman,” said Sanjoy Patnaik, India country director ofLandesa, a Seattle-based organization that works globally on land rights. “But unfortunately these laws are not enforced, or enforced well. Many do not have enabling rules. There are capacity issues in governments, institutional gaps at various levels. These retard the process of land being given to women.”

In 2014, Landesa published What Is Preventing Women From Inheriting Land? a report examining how the 2005 law was carried out — or not — in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. It showed that local government officials did not know about the law, or if they did, they failed to publicize, enforce or facilitate it. “The people and institutions that are mandated to change the oppressive social practice at least by enforcing the law of the land remain prisoners of the same practice,” the study concluded.

Some land records don’t even have a place to enter a woman’s name, said Patnaik.

Fortunately: In 2005, Odisha’s government began a program to give landless rural families (including those headed by women) title to a small plot — in many cases, title to government-owned land on which they had already been squatting. The program also put a couple’s land in both their names. It was hard to get into the most remote and poorest areas, so in 2009, Landesa helped the state train literate young people in nearly 20,000 villages to go door-to-door with a list of simple questions, finding and recording families who didn’t have land.

About 100,000 women got their names onto titles that had been solely in the name of their husbands. And 8,000 women who headed their households got their own titles. The plots were tiny — legally they were supposed to be one-tenth of an acre, but most were much smaller. Still, once titled, women could obtain a government grant for housing materials. They could grow papaya, moringa, squash and other vegetables, and plant mango or cashew trees. They could raise chickens or goats. Even such a small plot can lift a family out of extreme poverty.

Unfortunately: Odisha counted families, not people. That included women who headed their own households. But it didn’t include many of the poorest of Odisha’s poor: widows or women abandoned by their husbands who had returned to living with a father or brother, or found themselves staying with in-laws. (When a man dies, his brothers sometimes seize his land.) The women are not counted because they are supposed to be taken care of by their relative. In reality, these women are often treated miserably — forced to live in cowsheds, eat scraps and work as servants.

To the state, these women were invisible. And there were a lot of them. Rajesh Patil, the administrative chief of Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district, said they turned out to be about 12 percent of the district’s population of rural women. “They survive on the mercy of their in-laws or parents,” said Patil. “It is a substandard life.”

Fortunately: Odisha had people who could see these women. Odisha’s community health workers are village women trained in health and nutrition care for women and children. They know every woman in their village. In four districts, the government asked these health workers to identify the invisible women and bring in their records.

Then the government and Landesa established desks in local government buildings. They were called Women Support Centers, run by trained officials — women, usually.

About 5,200 of these invisible women so far have gotten pattas, mostly in ceremonies like the one March 5.   And there are now 76 Women Support Centers.

The program has helped to raise political awareness about these women, said Patil.

“The district is seriously thinking now about policies for single women,” he said. “That’s been possible because this program highlighted the issues.”

Having a patta brings the women into formal India. “It is a historical document for their residence in that locality,” said Patil. “It is a residence certificate, a caste certificate. They can take out loans against the land to develop it.” They can start the process for a pension. School attendance increases among their children.

Perhaps most important, the land gives them social status, autonomy and self-esteem. “They have something of their own,” said Patil.

Unfortunately: Even with all these benefits, only a small percentage of women have come forward to get titles.

Part of the problem is that women don’t know they have that right. The same holds in Gujarat, India’s westernmost state. There, a network of organizations, the Working Group for Women and Land Ownership, was formed to help daughters inherit agricultural land.

Shilpa Vasavada, a longtime leader who is the organization’s convener, said that when the group conducted workshops with village women, “99 percent agreed there was no option of women owning land. Legally they had the right, but nobody knew about it.”

That was relatively easy to solve. Much harder: Even when they knew, they were afraid to try.

The group began training village women with at least a fifth-grade education to work as paralegals, to tell women about their rights and help them with their cases.

“Originally, we assumed that we‘d have to work with the men to change their perception,” said Vasavada. “That was true. But it turned out we also had to work with rural women to change their perception.”

In Landesa’s three-state study, women wanted to own land. But they didn’t want to inherit it from their parents, because they didn’t want to incur the hostility of their brothers, whose help they might need if their marriages fell apart.

Vasavada said that women often signed their land rights over to a brother. Sometimes this was under duress, but often no overt threat was needed: women understood the perils.

“A woman who fights can be ostracized by her family,” said Vasavada. “One widow took six years to fight her case. She won. But during the battle it was hell, and she was living with, and dependent on, the people she was fighting.”

Fortunately: In Odisha, as well, Patnaik said, there was very limited demand from women for land rights, so two years ago Landesa created programs to raise land literacy. These are small workshops in villages for women and men to discuss questions like: What would happen if they allowed their daughters to inherit land? Should they be questioning society’s preference for sons?

“Initially, only a few people came,” said Patnaik. “Now, more and more are coming and we have heard women claiming their rights. There are some examples of women who are not afraid of talking about land with their husbands.”

The state of Uttar Pradesh has initiated its version of the programs, and two others, Bihar and Jharkhand, are preparing to replicate part of what Odisha is doing.

Unfortunately: Government officials, too, needed consciousness-raising. Vasavada said that in Gujarat, local officials would often ask women seeking their rights why they had come alone, and suggest they come back with male relatives.

Fortunately:  The Working Group persuaded 12 district governments in Gujarat to set up Swa Bhoomi — “My Land” — centers designed for women. The group also worked with the state to conduct workshops for elected village officials and land officers; 3,000 officers have been trained so far. Using role-playing, the workshops attempt to show them what women face at home and how not to close their doors to female petitioners. The workshop has become part of the syllabus for new village land officials.

Fortunately: These programs have helped thousands of women.

Unfortunately: That leaves about half a billion female farmers to go.

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