Phula Naik is a Dalit woman who got divorced at the age of 20. A daily wage labourer, she was left with no assets and also denied a share in the family homestead land and agricultural land by her elder brother, who has otherwise been taking care of her since she moved back to live with her father. But these days, Phula has a renewed sense of confidence and a spring in her step, as she has received a patta (title) for 25 decimal homestead land near her village Karsingh in Odisha. She now dreams of constructing and managing a small house on this land and starting her life afresh.
Unlike Phula, for many of India’s women, ownership and control over economic assets, especially property and land, remains a distant dream. It is estimated that women constitute close to 65% of agricultural workers and almost 74% of the rural workforce. Despite this, they are not officially counted as farmers, since a majority of women in India – as many as 87% – do not own land.
Most land in India is inherited, and the key barriers to women staking claim to their rightful share of inherited property are the widespread belief that a woman’s fair share is limited to her dowry; lack of legal awareness amongst women; women’s reluctance to claim their property rights, particularly in exchange for familial support in case of marital breakdown and flaws in the implementation of legal provisions. Culturally, access and control over land remain very much a male domain, with the patchy implementation of progressive laws reinforcing this discrimination.
Land ownership is critical for the social and economic empowerment of women. Successive research over the years has shown that women’s ownership of property improves their social standing within and outside of the family, strengthens their decision-making ability and provides them with a source of livelihood, thus empowering them economically. In fact, research has also demonstrated a significant link between women’s ownership of land and assets and reduced incidence of violence.
In 2001, a study conducted in Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala showed that women’s access to and control of economic resources, especially immovable assets like land and house, play a critical role in protecting women from marital violence. The findings showed that among the property-less, 49.1% experienced long-term physical violence and 84.2% experienced long-term psychological violence, but those who owned both land and house reported dramatically less physical as well as psychological violence (6.8% and 16.4% respectively). Even in cases where a woman owned only land or a house, the incidence of violence was much lower than in cases where she owned neither.
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Another multi-site comparative study conducted in West Bengal and Kerala in India and in Sri Lanka in 2006 showed that women’s ownership of land or a house deterred violence as it improved women’s status in three vital ways – women with property reported an enhanced status within the family; they also reported higher levels of respect within the community and they assumed a greater role in decision making, which markedly reduced their vulnerability.
Women who own property, therefore, have a greater voice, higher self-esteem and substantial economic independence. More importantly, they have an exit option – women who have property can negotiate and respond to a situation of violence more effectively and are more likely to leave abusive relationships and seek support or shelter. Thus, ownership of property not only serves as a deterrent but also enables women to take swifter action in dire circumstances.
Further, in 2015, a survey of 256 women in Karnataka, Telangana and Meghalaya, found that a majority of the women interviewed felt that land ownership had improved their mobility and security even outside their homes. Eighty-five percent of women interviewed in Meghalaya and 80% in Karnataka and Telangana said that owning land had improved the situation of perceived threats from outsiders.
The respondents reported that land ownership had reduced the risk of being targeted by land grabbers, by in-laws, or by other relatives and outsiders, and had substantially reduced the threat of them being branded as thlen (serpent) worshippers or witches (82% respondents in Meghalaya and 71% in Karnataka and Telangana claimed this).
Moreover, the respondents also reported a reduction in different forms of violence: in Karnataka and Telangana, over 40% women said that land ownership reduced the incidence of verbal abuse, and 36% women in Meghalaya the same; more than 43% of women said that land and asset ownership significantly reduced the physical abuse inflicted on them and almost 83% said that land and asset ownership had reduced the incidence of sexual violence in their homes.
Therefore, women’s ownership of land and property helps build women’s agency and enables them to fight back against patriarchal violence. Organisations such as ActionAid India, along with like-minded partners and community members, have been working for the implementation of progressive land reforms and legal provisions to ensure women’s access and control over land. In recent years, ActionAid India has supported 50,100 people in obtaining land titles, 12,000 of whom are women like Phula.
A lot remains to be done, both at the policy and implementation fronts, to realise equal inheritance and ownership rights of land and property for women. There is a need to formulate and implement policies, schemes and acts that ensure women’s right to land and property and to housing, especially at the state level.
Further, governments need to initiate and support sex-disaggregated data of land and housing in order to recognise and address lacunae in the implementation of laws. Governments should direct and incentivise financial institutions to provide housing loans to women, and for other forms of asset building; and governments should also take measures to facilitate women’s purchase of, access to and control over productive land.
Moreover, governments and civil society should work together for greater awareness building among women regarding their legal rights, and with both men and women to challenge the attitudes and beliefs that inhibit women and girls from inheriting property and land.
Divita Shandilya is a researcher with a masters in international relations. She is currently working as programme coordinator at South Solidarity Initiative, a knowledge activist hub of ActionAid India.