Female ownership of land is not a panacea in developing countries

By Ralitza Dimova

            Contrary to conventional wisdom, giving ownership rights on land to women may not be a welfare enhancing panacea in poor agricultural settings. When women have less access to complementary resources such as credit, labour or marketing channels than men, female ownership of land alone would not help them enter into productivity enhancing agricultural sectors and generate income in such sectors. If women control land, while men control all remaining resources – and asset ownership is insecure in an environment of market and institutional imperfections – the outcome for the household as a whole is likely to be negative.

These are the key findings of a new publication by Ralitza Dimova, Sumon Bhaumik and Ira Gang in the Journal of Development Studies. We find that in matrilineal societies in Malawi, where user and control rights over land are in the hands of women:

  • Cultivation of high value crops increases household welfare.
  • The likelihood of high value crop cultivation by households increases with the extent of land owned by men.
  • Income generated from high value crop production decreases with the amount of land owned by women.

High value crops and entitlement failure

In the context of agriculture-based less-developed economies it has long been argued that movement out of subsistence farming into commercial (or high value crop) production is a promising way out of poverty, and that establishing secure property rights on land is an important ingredient in this transition. Prioritising the allocation of land to women has been seen as an important ingredient in policy agendas, aimed at enhancing household welfare though female economic empowerment.

Even as gender sensitive asset allocation policies are pursued, it is well understood that there is widespread entitlement failure, which makes it difficult to translate capabilities and asset ownership into higher earnings. A specific example of such entitlement failure is the inability of households to participate in the production of high value crops, which could increase their income and hence their welfare. This form of entitlement failure is especially acute among women, either due to the absence of customary or formal rights on land, or due to difficulties in enforcing such rights on land as a result of a complex set of economic, social or cultural factors.

Resource ownership in Malawi

We conducted a study of rural Malawi where high value crops, such as tobacco and groundnuts, have been considered to be welfare enhancing. The Malawian rural landscape is particularly interesting because it is characterised by patrilineal and matrilineal land tenure systems. Matrilineal kinship places ownership and control rights on land in the hands of women and provides women with a degree of economic security. However, this economic security can be challenged (for instance, by maternal uncles) and is not matched by complementary resources, such as access to capital and hired labour. We hypothesised in our study that uncertain property rights may reduce households’ willingness to invest in cash crops, while paucity of complementary resources is likely to be a barrier to generating income from high value agriculture in matrilineal societies.

Table 1: Ethnic groups in Malawi, based on Census data

Ethnic group Persons % Classification referred to by Berge et al (2003)
Chewa 4252204 32.6 Matrilineal
Lomwe 2288285 17.6 Matrilineal
Yao 1760843 13.5 Matrilineal
Ngoni 1492850 11.5 Matrilineal
Tumbuka 1152017 8.8 Patrilineal
Njanja 754410 5.8 Matrilineal
Sena 467958 3.6 Patrilineal
Tonga 270833 2.1 Patrilineal
Ngonde (Nkhonde) 129914 1.0 Patrilineal
Lambya 59452 0.5 Patrilineal
Senga 24366 0.2
Nyakyusa 18751 0.1 Patrilineal
Other 357615 2.7
Total 13029498

Source: Berge, E. et al (2003). Lineage and land reforms in Malawi. Norwegian Centre for Land Tenure Studies.

Female land ownership: is it a panacea?

Using rich representative data from Malawi, our paper explores the effect of land owned by men and women on the probability for the household to enter the higher value cash crop sector and the actual income generated in that sector. We make a distinction between:

  • social norm driven land tenure, proxied by whether the household belongs to a matrilineal or a patrilineal kinship group.
  • the actual amount of land operated by either men or women in each of these two communities.

The paper then explores the implications of cash crop adoption and cash crop income on household welfare. The results indicate that although cash crop production unquestionably enhances household welfare and reduces the probability of the household to be poor, female land ownership is not a panacea. Not only does de facto male ownership of land enhance the probability of the household to enter the cash crop sector, especially in the context of matrilineal societies, but also land ownership by women reduces the income generated from cash crop production. We explain this finding with the absence of complementary resources, such as access to capital and hired labour by women. In other words, while women’s ownership of assets (such as land) may be a necessary condition for both female empowerment and enhanced household welfare, on its own it cannot guarantee either of these objectives.

The policy implication is that female ownership of assets cannot be approached in a piecemeal manner. A wider and more holistic approach needs to be adopted. In particular, should asset ownership by women be pursued as a policy agenda, it needs to be complemented with a pursuit of better access of women to capital, hired labour and marketing channels. For the reform to be successful, it would also be important to assure that social norms are well aligned with enhanced female empowerment.

The silencing of violence against women

By Tanja Bastia

Last Tuesday Mo Hume came to Manchester to speak at the development@manchester seminar series. The seminar series has been running for five years and each year invites around ten internationally renown speakers on international development (see link for this year’s programme http://www.seed.manchester.ac.uk/subjects/idpm/whatson/dev@manchester/ ). Mo is a political scientist at the University of Glasgow (http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/socialpolitical/staff/mohume/) with a longstanding research experience in Central America. Her paper drew on her longitudinal research on gender and violence in El Salvador, which she began in 2000 as part of her PhD research.

Latin America is known as one of the most violent regions in the world and Mo’s presentation highlighted the ways in which violence is gendered. Over the last decade, there have been some advances and improvements in relation to understanding violence as gendered. For example, we now have some gender-disaggregated data on violence. Legislation has also been approved to recognize the murder of women as women, under the (contested) term femicide. Yet most of the violence that women experience continues to be silenced. This is because violence continues to be framed from masculinist points of view, with an emphasis on the presentation of spectacle and stereotype. The emphasis is on the marginalized male gang member, while the everyday low-level violence that women continue to experience is largely overlooked. One statistic stood out: levels of violence are usually counted in terms of murder rates. In terms of murder rates in Central America, women are ‘only’ 14-20 percent of the victims – a fact that leads some to contest the anti-femicide advocacy that has been active in Central America since the early 2000s (Staud and Mendez 2015). Yet if we take a broader approach to violence and include interpersonal or ‘low’ intensity violence in our measures, the gendered dynamics of violence become more complex. For example, research in the UK shows that when domestic violence data are aggregated to crime survey data, then women become the majority of the victims of violence (Walby et al., 2014). Mo’s talk highlighted the brutal forms that violence against women often takes, which often includes torture and mutilations. What counts as ‘violence’ is therefore important as it has significant consequences for who is included and who is excluded as victims of violence.

As femicides are on the increase in other parts of Latin America, it is imperative that we pay attention to the ways in which violence is changing. The discussion ended on a worrying note, as Mo highlighted a second silencing that is taking place, that of the people who advocate against violence against women (and against militarization more broadly). Drawing on her longitudinal engagement with women’s and feminist groups in Central America, Mo shared her worrying observations that many of the advocacy groups are now under increased threat of violence, because of their advocacy work but also because of an increased fragmentation of the territory. People that were able to share information and visit each other’s houses, people who live in adjacent villages and neighbourhood, are now unable to cross territory lines that are being guarded by violent groups. The state is implicated in allowing that everyday violence continues to grow but also in promoting a discourse of claiming that victims of violence have fallen victims by their own choosing. For example, evidence from Guatemala indicates that some investigating officers have dismissed murder victims: if they are men, they must be a gang member; if they are women, they must be prostitutes. The assumption is that ‘good people’ do not fall victims of violence. Class prejudices play a huge factor in delineating these stereotypes (Hume and Wilding, 2015). In such a context, just attending a meeting or speaking to the police can get you killed. Advocacy groups are therefore weakened as speaking out becomes a dangerous act.

As speaking out from the very same places where this violence is unfolding becomes tantamount to raising a shooting target, it is imperative that these facts are shared by transnational women’s movements and by those of us who will not face danger if we speak out. Please share this post so that we help breaking the silence.

Mo has been working with this campaign: http://www.entrevosyyo.edu.sv/

Further reading:

Hume, Mo (2009) The politics of violence: gender, conflict and community in El Salvador, Bulletin of Latin American research book series. Wiley-Blackwell: Chichester, http://eu.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1405192267.html

Hume, Mo and Polly Wilding (2015) “Non-judicial justice? Women’s strategies for challenging domestic violence in contexts of chronic urban insecurity”, in Javier Auyero, Philippe Bourgois, and Nancy Scheper-Hughes (eds.) Violence at the Urban Margins, Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://global.oup.com/academic/product/violence-at-the-urban-margins-9780190221447?cc=gb&lang=en&

Staud, Kathleen and Zulma Y. Méndez (2015) Courage, resistance and women in Ciudad Juárez: challenges to militarization, Texas University Press, http://utpress.utexas.edu/index.php/books/stacou

Walby, Sylvia, Towers, Jude and Brian Francis (2014) Mainstreaming domestic and gender-based violence into sociology and the criminology of violence, The Sociological Review 62(S2): 187-214 (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-954X.12198/abstract)

Washington Valdez, Diana (2006) The killing fields: harvest of women, Cosmic enterprises, winner of the Samuel Chavkin Prize for Integrity in Latin American Journalism, available for download here https://nacla.org/download-killing-fields-harvest-women


Amnesty International, Violence against women http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/women-s-rights/violence-against-women

Central American women’s network, http://www.cawn.org/

International Women’s Day


by Brooks World Poverty Institute

International Women’s Day on Sunday 8th March celebrates the economic, political and social achievements of women. Brooks World Poverty Institute research demonstrates that women play a vital role in improving global value chains – as workers, farmers, producers and consumers – which can have a significant impact on pro-poor development.

The Capturing the Gains project, led by Professor Stephanie Barrientos, shows that more equitable participation of women in the workplace can be achieved by investing in training, valuing the particular contribution of women and promoting gender equality. This enhances value chain upgrading, improving women’s lives and promoting more inclusive development.

In the value chains covered by our research women accounted for up to 75-80% of workers. Women’s contributions though are often undervalued as they play ‘invisible’ roles in entrepreneurship and production. Smallholder agricultural crops like cocoa are often thought to be cultivated by men, but in reality many depend on female family members, casual, or unpaid female workers.

Managers consistently report that women are more honest and more reliable than men, helping to reduce absenteeism and creating a culture of trust, which translates in to productivity gains. Women’s social skills have much to offer global value chains, enhancing team building and adapting to new production networks, and their perceived ‘nimble fingers’ are suited to tasks related to quality of output such as flower picking and the fermentation and drying of cocoa beans.

Women workers should therefore be treated as an asset. Women’s contribution needs greater recognition and remuneration, with training and education for workers.

Job designation is too often determined by gendered norms. These create barriers for women to progress despite their skills. 70% of tourism workers, for example, are female, but in Africa, women are not usually tour guides, so they are excluded from higher-end trips and training opportunities.

Women are also concentrated in low-status work, and even in the same work, gender pay gaps persist. In Ugandan floriculture the majority of senior supervisors are men whilst 70-85% of harvesters are women. Harvesters take home a salary of around 14% of that of senior supervisors in 2011 and in Indian cocoa, women are paid less than men for the same work.

Research also found evidence of widespread sexual harassment of women in the workplace; this is damaging to women and a barrier to decent work and a productive environment.

The recommendations from our research are that women should be offered improved promotion opportunities and career paths. Workplace policies to address discrimination and sexual harassment, and support women worker’s rights will attract and enhance women as a skilled, productive and committed workforce. Civil society organisations have highlighted women’s poor working conditions in global value chains which has helped regular workers, but casual workers (the majority of which are women) are overlooked. Buyers can have a role by creating incentives, training and helping suppliers to address demands for a ‘living wage’ and gender equality.

Gender equality legislation is often poorly implemented. Government promotion of women in global value chains can help in pursuing a ‘high road’ to economic and social development, and Government-CSO collaborations can be effective in reducing sexual harassment and promoting gender equality. Trade agreements and Aid for Trade initiatives may include social clauses, but they should have a stronger gender focus.

Working in value chains provides millions of women with jobs and incomes which can bring greater economic independence, social connections and voice. With higher incomes, women are more likely than men to support household welfare and children’s education. Promoting pro-poor development can open doors to new life opportunities. These are powerful reasons to support women and greater gender equality in global value chains.

Dispatch from Lima: Seven Trends We Spotted at UN Climate Talks

By Lauren Gifford and Jonas Bruun

Two veterans of UN climate talks cut through the jargon and tell us what’s new and trending at this year’s summit in Lima, Peru.

UN Climate Change Conference COP20 Inauguration

(Photo: cancilleriadeperu / Flickr)

The 20th annual UN Climate Change Conference (Conference of the Parties, or COP) took place in Lima, Peru in December 2014. It’s a dress rehearsal for talks that should conclude a new international climate agreement in 2015. But with several strands of negotiations between governments, as well as hundreds of events being held in parallel, it can be hard to see the wood for the trees. So we’ve compiled a quick guide to some of the key trends shaping this year’s talks.

1. Zero emissions (but beware the small print)

Addressing climate change means rapidly weaning ourselves off the greenhouse gases that cause it. So what could be more welcome than a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050?

A “net zero” movement is now pushing for carbon neutrality within one generation. But there’s a catch: “net zero” means you can still emit a lot, as long as emissions are somehow sucked out of the atmosphere elsewhere. That provision is already being used to support expensive and unproven measures to capture and store carbon from fossil fuel power plants and industry, as well as controversial, climate-manipulating geo-engineering.

Striving for zero emissions is a step in the right direction, but we’ll need more than a catch phrase to motivate investments in renewables, grassroots empowerment, and straight-up significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

2. Setting your own target

“Intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) is the latest acronym in the alphabet soup of jargon that is routinely generated by UN climate talks.

INDCs are a way for countries to declare what concrete actions they’ll be taking to address climate change, in the hope that these ingredients can be baked into a new international climate agreement. The guidelines on what INDCs can be are intentionally flexible and ambiguous, allowing states to declare anything from economy-wide emissions targets to long-term national climate action plans.

Predictably, negotiators are now struggling to articulate INDCs in a way that is fair, equitable, and transparent. A number of developing countries are concerned that INDCs are becoming a ruse for developed countries to ignore tricky questions about their fair share of climate action, based on their current and historic responsibility for causing the problem in the first place.

There’s also a concern that INDCs will just focus on “mitigation” (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) even though, for many countries, adaptation (coping with the climate change that’s already locked in), finance and technology transfers are vital to any new international climate deal.

3. Everyone’s talking about justice

Until recently, if someone said “climate justice” they’d more likely than not be referring to the fact that climate change was mostly caused by a handful of industrialized countries and big corporations, who should pollute less rather than pushing “solutions” with negative impacts on Indigenous Peoples, people of color and the world’s poor. But this year we’re seeing “justice-washing” throughout the COP.

Even Lord Nicholas Stern, a leading capitalist climate economist, has been speaking the language of climate justice. While we are happy to hear that fat cats now have to open their eyes and ears to “local ownership” and “gender sensitivity,” these words shouldn’t be tossed around the point of meaninglessness.

4. Time to clean up climate finance

“Climate finance” is money from developed countries that is meant to help developing countries reduce greenhouse gas emissions (via mitigation) and deal with climate impacts that are already happening or unavoidable (adaptation). To this end, developed countries have promised to mobilize $100 billion dollars a year by 2020.

The reality of the climate finance delivered to date is not all rosy. For example, Japan provided $1 billion in loans to build coal-fired power plants in Indonesia, then counted it as their contribution to a “fast start” climate finance package that ran from 2012-2012. There are plenty more examples of dirty deals masquerading as climate finance, but we can’t afford sparse climate finance wasted on polluting projects.

It’s time for the COP to clearly define what can count as climate finance, including following the demand of civil society groups to adopt an exclusion listthat prevents a new, $10 billion Green Climate Fund from funding fossil fuel projects.

5. Big oil everywhere

Last year’s UN climate change conference was awash with corporate sponsorship, which we warned could become “the new normal.” Twelve months on, big oil firms are everywhere. Shell and Chevron even co-hosted an event where the aforementioned Lord Stern spoke against divesting from fossil fuels (particularly oil and gas). Meanwhile, these same companies are lobbying hard to water down any potential climate deal.

What happened to climate change being “the biggest market failure the world has ever seen?” as Stern once wrote? We guess the oil companies never got the memo.

6. Forest conservation gets a makeover

The initiative to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) has been a hot topic at the climate talks for several years, but the means of financing forest protection remain unclear.

The initial REDD+ idea, pedaled by the World Bank, was to build a market for forest carbon offsets: big corporations could compensate for their own pollution by paying to preserve tropical forests. But REDD+ has increasingly negative connotations, as many of the initial schemes have been associated with displacing and disempowering indigenous and peasant communities and undermining their land rights.

In light of all the bad press, many forest projects are dropping the REDD+ branding and are simply being labeled “conservation projects” or “administrative agreements.” It remains to be seen whether or not these are any better at helping local people to preserve forests without compromising their livelihoods.

7. Gender, and arguing about its relevance

Developing “gender sensitive” policy is an increasingly important part of emerging climate finance schemes. But some governments object, including those of Sudan and Algeria. They want references to gender removed from the policies being negotiated in Lima. The European Union and Mexico, amongst others, insist that gender is a priority. The impasse continues.

Jonas Bruun and Lauren Gifford were part of the Institute for Policy Studies’ delegation at the UN climate talks in Lima, Peru.  Bruun is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Manchester’s Institute for Development Policy and Management, and Gifford is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado, Boulder. This blog was originally published by the Institute for Policy Studies