Defending women’s land rights | Land Portal | Securing Land Rights Through Open Data

In June 2018, SciTech Europa travelled to Brussels, Belgium, to attend the 2018 instalment of European Development Days (EDD) as the event’s media partner. Organised by the European Commission, EDD brings the development community together each year to share ideas and experiences in ways that inspire new partnerships and innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. At the event, SciTech Europa met with Oxfam’s policy advisor for land rights, Imke Greven, and Elisabetta Cangelosi who works on women’s land rights, gender justice, and land and environmental rights at the International Land Coalition, to discuss issues around women’s land rights and other relevant issues.


My land, my rights!

The issue of women being included in any discussion on land rights was one which Greven and Cangelosi had discussed at EDD in a session entitled ‘My community, my land, my rights!’ which looked at the Land Rights Now campaign for secure indigenous and community lands and how to ensure equal land rights for women immediately before they met with it SciTech Europa. And, Greven explained, the main outcome of this session was to demonstrate that women’s land rights are a fundamental component of indigenous and community land rights.

“Women with secured land rights are able to better safeguard educational and nutritional needs of children. Women with secured land rights can better take care of themselves, their children and the land. The whole community can benefit. There is a very important interplay here between community land rights and women’s land rights,” she said.

However, it is perhaps not as simple as beginning with community land rights in a general sense for the issue of women’s land rights to be highlighted. Cangelosi went on: “We have to have a discussion on women’s land rights in general. Of course, women are to be entitled to land rights in a context where there is no community land rights tradition and no collectively owned land. But it must be remembered that, to an extent, women’s land rights are crucial for women’s rights more broadly because they are fundamental for the enjoyment of other rights.”

Indeed, recommendation 34 of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) committee on rural women provides one of the best definitions of this as it explains how land rights are the basis for other rights for women who live in rural areas.

However, Cangelosi told SciTech Europa, there is a very specific sub-category regarding women who live in areas which have collective or community land rights, “which basically means that the community collectively owns the land and, as these communities are often the first who are impacted and affected by land grabbing, women are, in a way, a double victim: they are victims as women and they are victims as part of the community which is evicted or pushed away by a land grabbing action.” Such land grabbing is typically associated with companies involved in natural resource exploitation, Cangelosi explained.


Customary norms

There is also the need to properly understand how protecting community land rights can often mean protecting customary norms, and what the effect is for women. Cangelosi said: “We try to analyse how this interplays with the very real need to protect community land rights due to how integral they are for the protection of women’s rights – and, of course, this is true vice versa. This means that women act in order to change certain norms and to ensure that their voice is heard in the context of the community.”

Greven added: “Research by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has shown that there is also a very close relation to food security, and so if you close the gender gap that exists in agriculture, there is the potential for food security to increase by 17%.”


The Land Rights Now campaign

The Land Rights Now campaign aims to eradicate poverty and hunger, to protect the environment and fight climate change, and to build a world of justice where human rights are protected for all, through supporting indigenous and community land rights. Greven highlighted the fact that, currently, over 800 organisations have signed up to this campaign.

According to Cangelosi, it is indigenous women who are the leaders of these movements; it is women who are protecting land rights, protecting the community, and protecting the environment. “They are the women who have a profound knowledge of the lands where they live; they have the knowledge and the experience of the indigenous knowledge. So, spiritually, it is the indigenous women who are the leaders of protecting community rights.”

The Land Rights Now Campaign can achieve results, Greven added, because it shows the similar threats that different populations face despite their distance and specificities, and so creates a global movement of solidarity and collective action around them.

She added: “Up to 2.5 billion people, including 370 million Indigenous people, depend on lands and natural resources that are held, used or managed collectively. Their rights are least recognised and protected, exposing these communities to impact of land grabbing. Their voice is less likely to be heard.

“Through the Land Rights Now campaign, we are able to bring together the voices of different communities from all around the world to converge into land rights. From the women’s land rights perspective, they are the rural majority. It is crucial to see how these issues between community and women land rights interact and reinforce each other to a certain extent.”


EU-Level assistance

While there is always more to be done, and while there will always be room for more support at all levels, land rights issues are also political issues, and so when it comes to the EU, there is, Cangelosi said, a level of accountability to be had because most of the companies who actually threaten land rights are based in the EU. Indeed, this is an issue that goes beyond corporate and social responsibilities, she added.

For Greven, who has worked extensively on the impact of companies involved in large scale land based investments, the argument of who is responsible and accountable is an important one. Using the Netherlands as an example, she explained: “A couple of years ago, Berta Cáceres, a land rights defender, was murdered. She was an indigenous leader, and she made a struggle to protect her community territory from eviction or environmental degradation impact due to the construction of a dam. International investors were behind this national project, including the Dutch Development Bank.

“Despite the increase in threats and even killings of land and environmental rights defenders, there are also positive signals worldwide. Laws and policies recognise collective rights more and more and are becoming more gender sensitive. Policy formulation is a first step, enforcement of law is what counts.”

Positive developments have also come from big multinational companies, such as Coca Cola, who have committed to a zero-tolerance for land grabs. Challenges persist, however, as despite the commitments made, it is difficult to make sure that all business units in the entire value chain adhere to standards of action.

One way of tackling this, Greven said, “is to have good policies in place. But the second step is for multinationals to follow up and comply to these policies. This is not something that happens overnight, however. We need a lot of time to develop and improve ourselves.

“But at the fundamental level it needs to be acknowledged that things need to change, and national governments have a role to play here in establishing regulatory limits. The European Union certainly has a great role to play; they have so much leverage, and they can use their position to simply place the issue of land rights on the agenda. They can also ensure that funds are allocated, that laws are implemented and monitored, and they can work to resolve cases. There is a lot to do.”



Oxfam is working to help ensure that women benefit from any dialogue and decision-making process on land rights by strengthening the voice of local women. Indeed, Oxfam champions local leaders and has projects, for example, to educate people at the local level about national laws and policies because, as Greven told SciTech Europa, “it is also about compliance; they need to know their rights. They often don’t even know they have rights.”

Oxfam is also working to ensure that women in these areas are aware of the importance of being an inspirational leader, where women can be inspired to stand up for their rights, and campaigns and programmes have been established to achieve this.

Influencing is also important. For Greven, this involves influencing companies to respect gender within their operations, but it is also important on the ground: “An example,” she said, “are the rights women have in the cocoa value chain. And so we have held a large workshop where women addressed their constraints in working at cocoa plantations with regard to not having rights or access to land to land, as well as things like being unable to access finances or markets.

“Women try to capture all these issues and address them, and so we have joint learning programmes at both the European and national levels, and we work in the field with the local women.”

Cangelosi added: “One thing which is also important is mutual learning amongst the many partners – Oxfam included – which are working in this area. This is, to some extent, inspired by the context, because there is never a one size fits all solution, despite the fact that many of the issues, at a fundamental level, may indeed be the same everywhere. How you tackle this varies depending on where you are, meaning that what you need to do in order to tackles norms and practices that hamper women’s rights has to similarly be adapted.”

This idea of context is also relevant to the specific starting point, which highlights the importance of conducting a thorough context analysis. “You need to be there on the ground to understand what is happening.” Greven said.” And, therefore, a one size fits all approach, even though there are a lot of commonalities in the problem, will not work. You have to be sensitive with how you approach them, and, at Oxfam, we always advocate for increasing women’s participation and their decision making power, and this can be done via very many different approaches and you always have to see which fits the specific context.”

For Cangelosi, from the perspective of someone who works with women’s land rights, “it is true that there are a lot of organisations who are specialised in women’s rights and which are perfectly aware of these issues. The point is, however, that we have to ensure that organisations who work on development and land rights issues who are not focused on women’s rights come to the same approach. Oxfam is one of the organisations who, even though they are not a women’s rights organisation, have an incredibly sensitive approach; they are very good in their analysis and the way in which they approach things.

“Yet, we still need to have more awareness amongst organisations who work in different fields, and more awareness on how to address women’s issues. We call it women’s land rights because we have to focus on that element and we have to empower them. Women’s rights are a fundamental part of anything that is about any rights and any kind of development. It is the most cross cutting issue there is.


Human rights

Land rights are not classified as a human right in itself, but, as Greven explained, there are land rights provisions in human rights treaties, while the respect of property rights are in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) and in several other instruments.

While it does not seem as though land rights will become classified as a human right any time soon, work is taking place in this area. As Greven highlighted: “Those who work on land rights are raising this issue at a broader level. Rights to land and natural resources are highly controversial as the governance of resources is at the intersection of different economic and development paradigms. This is certainly evident in the recognition of the right to water as a human right, which was only finalised in 2010.”

Cangelosi went on to discuss the violation of the rights of those who defend the rights of others, too. Here, she explained that when it comes to the statistics on the violations of the rights of human rights defenders, activists for civil rights, and land rights defenders, these violations are often violent.

Indeed, just two days before SciTech Europa spoke to Greven and Cangelosi two land rights defenders were murdered in Guatemala. And, Greven explained, impunity is a big problem in many countries. In some countries, only 10% of such cases are ever successfully investigated and the perpetrator brought to trial.

This also brings into play discussions around corruption. As Cangelosi highlighted, recent research has shown that one in every two people in Africa have to pay a bribe to an official if they want to gain the title for a piece of land. “Land titling increases the likelihood of corruption because people know there is something at stake; people pay for information, while others get rich and others lose out, and this increases conflict.

“Even though the reflection on women’s land rights goes beyond the simple issue of land titling, this remains an important component of the recognition of these rights and in many instances the land titling processes, as explained by our Transparency International colleague during the ‘My community, my land, my rights’ session, increase the likelihood of corruption.”


Sustainable Development Goals

Given these multifaceted issues and problems regarding women’s land rights, it is increasingly important that these are included in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, Greven concluded.

From the perspective of women’s rights, it is very important to think about women who are land rights defenders because these women are likely to face a situation in which, by tradition, they are discriminated against. And yet they have raised their voice within their community and have become champions for their rights and the rights of their fellow women.

Of course, many of the threats faced by these women also face the men who may stand beside them. Yet, as Cangelosi said, there are also gender specific threats related to women which must be highlighted – from rape to threats against their families. It is, it would seem, easier to threaten a mother via her children than it is to threaten a father, and women in these communities are therefore demonstrating an almost superhuman strength in standing up to those who would threaten them and rob them – and their families and indeed their entire communities – of a safe, stable and productive future.

But they cannot win this fight alone, and with the help of organisations such as Oxfam and the International Land Coalition, and with the assistance of international businesses with an enhanced sense of corporate social responsibility, perhaps they can emerge victorious.


This blog was originally posted on the SciTech.  

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