It’s time we break down the barriers to women’s access to land and protect women’s rights while the pandemic places them in a precarious situation
Not only is the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) having serious health impacts around the world, it also has the potential to significantly affect the housing, land, and property (HLP) of women and girls, particularly in low and middle-income countries.
Women at a disadvantage
In many parts of the world, women and girls are already at a disadvantage, with limited economic assets, education, and job opportunities; and they could find themselves further behind when the crisis ends. Many women work in the informal sector and lack any job protections or access to social security or insurance structures. Women are also more likely to be burdened with the care of family members during the crisis – children home from school and sick relatives - and, compounding that, the enforcement of quarantines and social distancing is predicted to lead to a rise in domestic and gender-based violence.
So why should women’s housing, land, and property rights matter?
Around the world, land serves as a foundation for security, shelter, income and livelihoods. But rights to land are not equitably distributed to all. This is especially true for women. In fact, women still encounter persistent barriers to their land rights – including legal barriers – in nearly 40 percent of countries. This is a problem the World Bank and partners have sought to address through the Stand for Her Land campaign in which we’re working to bring down these barriers. But urgent action is needed during COVID-19 so that women do not fall further behind.
Previous epidemics, and post-conflict or post-disaster situations, have shown that women are likely to be further disenfranchised of their rights to HLP if their rights are not protected. During the AIDS epidemic, widows and orphans often lost property to other family members and were left homeless, even as they dealt with their own health emergencies. And while there is some anecdotal evidence that during the Ebola crisis women’s customary rights were protected if they were widowed, generally during crises, widows face a higher risk of disinheritance.
HLP is a very important asset for those who have limited wealth. Women whose husbands or fathers have died can lose these assets to male family members because they often only have legal or socially recognized rights to their land and home through a husband or male relative. We are already seeing anecdotal evidence from Kenya of widows being thrown out of their homes during social distancing, as they are seen as an extra burden and not really part of the family.
Women in traditional, customary, polygamous, or informal marriages are further at risk, because legal rights to HLP are usually dependent on their being formally married (in relationships sanctioned by the state).
More specifically, women and girls are often highly dependent on male relatives to access HLP. Should their male relatives succumb to the pandemic, women and girls’ tenure security may further weaken due to limited legal protection, lack of documentation, and restrictive social norms. They can be at particular risk of land grabbing by their husband’s relatives.
Pandemics may also reduce other economic assets, such as wages and savings, making HLP an even more important part of overall household assets. This may increase competition and conflict over HLP. In such situations, women may lack the financial resources, information, or support to enforce their property rights.
So, what can we do?
In the short term, it is critical to implement broad protective measures that ensure no one will lose their home during the pandemic period, whether from foreclosure, eviction, or inheritance issues – including for those who live in informal settlements.
For inheritance, in particular, it’s important during the crisis that countries not allow female heirs to sign over their property.
And in the longer term, reforming inheritance laws and marital property regimes will be key to improving the implementation and enforcement of women’s rights to HLP.
Experience from post-disaster land activities in Aceh, Indonesia, and from post-conflict land restitution programs in Colombia have shown that with willingness and a focus on women’s particular barriers, we can make a difference.
It’s time we break down the barriers to women’s access to land around the world, and make sure to protect women’s rights while the pandemic places them in a precarious situation.