June 11, 2018 | By Madeleine Nicholson

Guest Commentary - Women and Girls: Land Rights for Climate Resilience

By Madeleine Nicholson 


A changing climate exacerbates inequality

While changing climates across the globe will impact everyone in some form or another, the agricultural sector—which employs a large proportion of the world’s poor rural population—is one of the most vulnerable to the effects. Left unmitigated, changing rainfall patterns, unpredictable temperatures, and increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters are likely to cause destruction that threatens food security and economic growth.

Rural women and girls are at a disadvantage when faced with these threats, and further environmental changes stand to exacerbate political, economic, and social inequalities. During natural disasters, for example, women and girls are fourteen times more likely to die than men, often due to norms that prevent them from leaving home and generally limit their resilience in emergencies. When challenged by these disasters, they are also more vulnerable to gender-based violence, adverse reproductive outcomes, and the loss of support systems.

Despite these trends, rural women and girls can be actors for climate resilience rather than victims of inequality and circumstance—if given the right resources. Alongside quality educational opportunities, economic empowerment, and fair, safe, and profitable work, rural women and girls require the ability to manage their own property. In order to form truly holistic climate action plans, national policies and social norms need to be reassessed to include and improve gender-restrictive land rights, empowering rural women and girls to succeed in the agricultural sector and to be champions for environmental health.

Women in agriculture and gender-restrictive land rights

The participation of women and girls in rural labor markets varies across countries and regions, but data shows that they contribute to 43 percent of agricultural labor globally. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations reports that, “Overall the labor burden of rural women exceeds that of men, and includes a higher proportion of unpaid household responsibilities related to preparing food and collecting fuel and water.”

Yet, women experience more restricted access to education, skills development, and technological advancements in the agricultural sector, and gender, along with class, ethnicity, and social status, remains a significant determinant of natural resource allocation. In more than half of all countries, women’s land tenure rights are inhibited by either formal laws or traditional beliefs and customs.

While land tenure systems vary across countries and regions, the processes by which men and women acquire land generally fall into three categories: through social or familial relationships, through the market, or by the state. In each of these categories, rural women and girls rarely have an upper-hand. Land under individual control is transferred through inheritance, and with very few exceptions, it goes to sons or male family members. When land is state-owned, its use and redistribution is often reflective of the attitudes and norms of state leaders who may have discriminatory perspectives on women’s land access. And when land is available on the market, women, lacking capital or financial independence, cannot effectively access it.

When women do have access and ownership over land or plots, studies show that their land is generally smaller, of poorer quality, and less secure than the land owned by men.

Gender empowerment and climate-smart solutions go hand-in-hand

By providing rural women and girls the opportunity and resources to acquire and control their own land, leaders tap into climate-smart agriculture strategy, “an approach to developing the technical, policy, and investment conditions to support actions aimed at achieving sustainable agricultural development for food and nutrition security under a changing climate.” This includes the provision of land access to women, the formal rights to land inheritance, and the ability to participate in climate-smart decision-making at the household, community, and national levels.

With secure land rights for women, rural communities can likely expect better resiliency after natural disasters, improved soil conservation, decreased deforestation, and increased crop production. Indeed, the FAO estimates that if women farmers are provided the same productive resources as their male counterparts, their crop yields could increase 20 to 30 percent. Stronger property rights were also found to be associated with a five percent increase in gross domestic product and an increased average annual growth per capita income by 6 to 14 percentage points.

Aside from climate-smart agriculture and economic growth, secured land rights have the potential to transform the health of communities. Studies have found that children in households where women own land are up to 10 percent less sick and 33 percent less likely to be malnourished. Women who own land are also 8 times less likely to experience domestic violence and are more likely to invest in education, creating stronger communities of global changemakers.

Multi-dimensional approaches are essential

Because the physical landscape, social climate, and histories of each country or region create unique contexts in which land rights are developed, it is important that reforms are multi-dimensional. One collection of case studies recommends that following areas are addressed in tandem with legal policy change: social change, women’s empowerment, women’s education, and good governance. Social change will be particularly essential to address, as one study found that even when women owned land, their husbands still had better access to resources and were still seen as leaders of the home. Women must also play an active role in the drafting of reforms in order to ensure that new policies are informed, realistic, and sustainable.

With the priorities of gender equality and climate change standing side-by-side at this year’s G7 summit in Canada, it is critical that world leaders see gender-restrictive land rights as a hurdle to rural women’s empowerment and an obstacle to truly effective climate-smart strategies.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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