Advancing women’s land rights in the midst of the COVID-19 “perfect storm”: the case of Bonito land regularization in Brazil | Land Portal

"I worked for ten years with my husband to build our house on the land we bought, but he died unexpectedly. His daughters expelled me from my house and my land. He and I lived together for fifteen years but I had no means to claim my rights and was not aware of my [vulnerable] situation." --Maria José, from Caruaru


On the 15th of September 2020, despite overwhelming difficulties imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the first Minha Casa é Legal land regularization certificate was signed in Bonito, a municipality of Pernambuco, Brazil. The attorney of Bonito, who signed on behalf of the mayor, authorized the local notary to nominate 479 residents of Mutirão, an informal settlement, to be given rights to the land they have lived on and in the houses they built.

Most importantly, 71% of these new titles will be issued in women’s names as sole or joint owners. In other words, women will be the first and primary beneficiary, regardless of their marital status, in accordance with Brazilian law.

This remarkable milestone in women’s land rights is a long time in the making. Espaço Feminista (EF), a civil society umbrella organization based in Recife, began supporting women’s groups in Bonito starting in 2017. After reaching a partnership agreement with the Bonito government to implement Minha Casa é Legal in August 2019, it took another year of sustained efforts—in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic—to complete all the stages and requirements for land regularization the Mutirão area. This is just the beginning, the program will continue with sixteen other informal settlements in the Bonito municipality.

Developing a model strategy to achieve concrete results for women living in vulnerabilities

Since 2010, Espaço Feminista has been linking women from diverse areas and movements to discuss and face the challenges of entrenched gender inequality, specially relating to women’s rights to the land, housing, and territories 2 and by doing so, promote opportunities and spaces for women to participate in public life and decision-making, as well as monitor the implementation of public policies that guarantee equality of gender, race, and ethnicity.

To achieve its objectives, Espaço Feminista developed and tested a model of change that combines four interconnected components: 1) knowledge generation using gender-responsive evidence; 2) knowledge sharing—capacity building and political formation; 3) coalition building— a strong and inclusive alliance; 4) advocacy—influencing public policies formulation and implementation.

This model was developed during years of struggle to secure women’s land rights in the area called Ponte do Maduro in Recife, 3 enabled by Espaço Feminista building a strong coalition to ensure that four communities could remain on the land where they have lived for almost a century. The difficulties were due to strong speculative interest in the area, as well as resistance from governmental institutions and some community leaders. It was particularly challenging because a feminist organization was the protagonist in leading the land regularization process, so a shift of power also needed to take place. Finally in 2014, after four years of hard work by the coalition, the government ensured the rights of the residents and women were given equal rights to land titles. This successful model was analyzed and validated by the global land rights NGO, Landesa Rural Development Institute in 2018.4

Another struggle to advance in women’s land rights in the Agreste of Pernambuco

The agreste of Pernambuco is a semi-arid agricultural region that refers to the transition area between the Mata (humid area) and the Sertão (dried area). In February 2017, Espaço Feminista held a public dialogue with representatives of Bonito municipality as they were open to discussing a local approach to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).5 Based on socio-economic data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), namely, agricultural census 2006 and demographic census 2010, the information was presented in the context of the SDGs, especially women and land related targets and indicators. This data was collected and analyzed collectively and presented to a wide audience in which EF emphasized the importance of a bottom-up approach as an effective strategy to improve land rights for women living in poverty.

Following the public dialogue, Espaço Feminista and its partners carried out quantitative research in Bonito and Caruaru in early 2018 in order to obtain additional data. It was important that the coalition finds the links between women and land insecurity. For the research, 235 inhabitants (of which 205 were women) in Bonito were interviewed.

The results revealed a critical aspect of women’s land insecurity: in Bonito, 58.9% of the interviewees declared their marital status as single, however among them 51.5% also declared that they were living with a partner. This is an example of gender vulnerability that indicates a significant legal insecurity to land tenure in case of separation or a partner’s death. In addition, since most transactions happen in an informal land market where no legal aspects of Brazilian laws are necessarily observed or reinforced, women’s investments in the land have higher risks. Even in legal transactions, Espaço Feminista knows of many cases of women losing their rights for the lack of information and/or resources to start a claim.6

The results of this research was disseminated widely. It served as a reference for further advocacy, part of Espaço Feminista’s model strategy. Hence, from late 2018 to mid-August 2019, EF focused on strengthening local women’s groups but also created a wider network with other strategic alliances, such as local, national, and global organizations, as well as with diverse women’s movements.

Knowledge sharing with the women involved was also key to building capacity. Espaço Feminista went back to each area visited during the research to engage with the women and collectively discussed their priorities. This is an approach by which Espaço Feminista creates the conditions so that the most important needs of women could be addressed by public policies. Gender-responsive evidence is presented to raise women’s awareness so they may realize their agency—the ability to identify choices and act on those choices, in order to make their claims on public policies as a right and not as a favor.

The result of capacity building and coalition building was that on 15 August 2019, two days after the Margarida’s March (Marcha das Margaridas) in Brasilia, a cabinet decree was signed by Bonito’s mayor (Decreto Municipal 35/2019) to institute the Plan of Land Regularization of Bonito. More than recognizing the need to do what was promised by many other mayors before, the decision was based on the evidence collected and revealed by Espaço Feminista’s research—all the 17 informal settlements have been built on public land that belongs to the municipality since they were expropriated many years ago.

Can evidence influence the political agenda and change the policy priorities?

The signing of land regularization certificate in Bonito on 15th September 2020, without any public celebration due to restrictions imposed by pandemic and the proximity of the local elections, represents a symbolic accomplishment in a long term project.

For Espaço Feminista, it is of tremendous importance to positively affect women’s lives as a result of a collective movement of advocacy, partnership, capacity building, and influencing the local political agenda based on evidence. Moreover, reinforcing the importance of movement building linking a local initiative to a global discussion on how to advance SDG goals and targets from a bottom-up approach.

This is crucial for Espaço Feminista’s women’s empowerment model, as it helps to understand social, economic and political inequalities women are subjected to and also provide the critical capacity to understand that one woman’s problem does not affect only her life but is a consequence of a socioeconomic and political structure in which women living in poverty are systematically deprived of opportunities and access to information, financial and economic resources, as well as the capacity to be agents of their own lives.7

Therefore, Espaço Feminista advocates that real policy change needs to be based not on political decisions of a single government that can and will eventually change. Espaço Feminista works to transform the way public administrative bodies make decisions regarding policies that affect women’s lives and livelihoods—by engaging in critical analysis on how women could collectively influence policies in a manner that it reflects their interests and rights while not reproducing gender bias in their decisions. Real transformation occurs when the most vulnerable groups realize that collectively they can exercise a right to make policy claims and that they could sustain a movement over long periods of time despite patriarchal and political resistance as in the case of Ponte do Maduro.8

Next steps and ways forward: learning and measuring the impacts

The ongoing process of land regularization in Bonito offers an opportunity for Espaço Feminista, its partners, and the global land rights community to learn as the coalition improves land documentation for women in Bonito. Building on the proven notion that secure land documentation positively influences all aspects of societal security, from food security to income generation, Espaço Feminista plans to measure and analyze the changes that will occur in the coming years in those communities.

In this regard, one of Espaço Feminista’s targets is to analyze changes in family dynamics, identifying possible changes in how women increase their capacity to make decisions in their families. For instance, in the way household decisions are made to invest in improving family health--as women are often the ones who spend hours in health services for the children and the elderly. Espaço Feminista is also planning to analyze the influence of women as the main beneficiaries who could collectively influence community decisions regarding urbanization plans (which includes land regularization process), and what sort of decisions can be different from other areas (not subject to land regularization). For example, could the women influence plans to make safer space for youths, claiming public spaces, and implementing green areas?

Lastly, it is crucial to highlight three important aspects of this Minha Casa é Legal initiative in Bonito. First, it is happening during a global crisis that predicts a major deterioration of women’s land rights in the coming decades. Second, land regularization in Bonito is part of a wider process of policy change using evidence collected and analyzed by grassroots women based on feminist pedagogy. As a result, it offers a real possibility to upscale Espaço Feminista’s model not only in other regions in Brazil, but also in other geographies. Third, the organizational arrangements and partnerships of Minha Casa é Legal represent a vital opportunity to reinforce a bottom-up approach to the SDG Agenda during a global recession worse than World War II 9 and in a context of shrinking political space, when women and feminists movements, as well as Indigenous nationalities, black movements, and afro-descendent communities are under severe attack, indicating a necessity to value their contribution and protect these organizations, networks, and platforms.

A luta continua!


  1.  C. Biron of Thomson Reuters Foundations describes how the upheavals resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic have been described as creating the “perfect storm” for land rights abuses. See: https://news.trust.org/item/20200716154711-bj316
  2. We refer to “territories” as the geographical space incorporating social, economic, and cultural dynamics in a broad sense, inclusive of specific references to Indigenous territories.
  3. Global Land Tools Network, “After half a century, land titles given to residents of Ponte do Maduro: Recife, Brazil,” (2014). https://gltn.net/2014/03/18/after-half-a-century-land-titles-given-to-re... ponte-do-maduro-recife-brazil/
  4. Landesa, “Leveraging the SDGs to improve women’s land rights,” (2018). https://cdn.landesa.org/wp- content/uploads/Leveraging-the-SDGs-to-improve-womens-land-rights-ENG.pdf
  5.  P. Chaves, J. Sanjak, and M. Childress, “Local Movement Leveraging the Sustainable Development Goals to Strengthen Women’s Land Rights in Brazil,” (2017). https://sdgfunders.org/blog/local-movement- leveraging-the-sustainable-development-goals-to-strengthen-womens-land-rights-in-brazil/
  6.  P. Chaves, “What do land rights mean for women? Five insights from Brazil,” (2018). https://blogs.worldbank.org/latinamerica/what-do-land-rights-mean-women-...
  7. See C. Moser, “Gender transformation in a new global urban agenda: challenges for Habitat III andbeyond,” Environment & Urbanization (Sept 2016), 1–16. DOI: 10.1177/0956247816662573
  8. P. Chaves, “Case Study 1: Participation in Practice: Lessons learned from Ponte do Maduro (Recife, Brazil),” in UN Women and OHCHR, “Realizing Women’s Rights to Land and Other Productive Resources” (2013). https://www.ohchr.org/documents/publications/realizingwomensrightstoland...
  9. World Bank, “COVID-19 to Plunge Global Economy into Worst Recession since World War II,” (June 8, 2020). https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2020/06/08/covid-19-to-p... economy-into-worst-recession-since-world-war-ii

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