International Women’s Day 2020: statement by UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw

two girls in the field

8 March 2020 – Great strides have been made in women’s rights around the world. But we are not there yet. To fully realize women’s rights and potential, this generation must stand up and demand tangible equality. Standing up for genuine equality in land ownership is perhaps the simplest way to secure benefits for ourselves and others.

In 2020, women’s equal ownership of land and access to natural resources are still big challenges. The number of women who own property is small compared to the number of men in that lucky position. The absence of clear laws to address fairness in land ownership directly affects women’s economic and social opportunities. In turn, norms and practices that, in effect, exclude women from owning, inheriting and controlling land make women dependent on men, and highly vulnerable to their demands.

A recent report from the World Bank revealed that two-fifths of countries worldwide limit women’s property rights in some way. In 19 countries, women do not have equal ownership rights to immovable property. In 44 countries, male and female surviving spouses do not have equal rights to inherit assets. 

The uneven distribution, ownership and control of land and natural resources by women prevents them from taking free and independent decisions and actions. This lack of decision-making power affects the wellbeing of families and communities in a negative way.

On the contrary, when women have access to assets communities thrive.

Secure land rights increase a woman’s ability to start and grow a business.  With land as collateral, women can secure credit. This allows them to invest in their families, changing outcomes for their children. Studies from Nicaragua and Honduras, for example, have found that increases in female landholdings are associated with increases in household food expenditure and child educational attainment.

There is also evidence that women are less vulnerable to domestic violence when they have ownership of their land or land security. Women can also participate more effectively in community assemblies and hold positions in community governance when they have secure land rights.

Secure land and property rights are a critical tool for women's empowerment that also deliver tremendous benefits for the environment. In Rwanda, women with formalized land rights were 19 percent more likely to engage in soil conservation, compared to 10 percent among men.

The evidence is overwhelming. Realizing women’s land ownership rights is good for people and it is good for the planet. That is why, in 2017, Parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification adopted a Gender Action Plan.

The plan makes the link between the health and productivity of the land and women’s land ownership rights abundantly clear at the most practical level. In 2019, with a follow up decision on land tenure, UNCCD Parties were invited to legally recognize equal use and ownership rights of land for women.

On this International Women’s Day, this generation must hear this invitation to equality as a demand for action. I chose to stand up for it. Will you?

Photo: (c) UN Photo Martine Perret