How to ensure rights to land and resources for local women as well as men?

Jane Carter, 05 October 2015
How to ensure rights to land and resources for local women as well as men?

The Bern conference on local communities and indigenous people’s rights to land and resources is over; so what were the lessons learned? Probably all the separate sessions were intense and wide-ranging, but I suspect the one on women’s rights was particularly so. Taking place just after the adoption of the SDGs – which are strong on gender equality but less so on land rights – we thought it a timely moment to highlight women’s land rights. It’s a fact that globally, most private land is owned by men, with women’s access to such land usually being through the male line – rendering unmarried, divorced or widowed women particularly vulnerable. Under community based systems of forest and land tenure, similar patterns tend to prevail, although sometimes with added layers of complexity. Our session focused on what can be done practically to make a more “enabling environment” for women – looking at the role of different stakeholders: individuals and communities, civil society organisations, the government, and the private sector. In addition to the video detailed in the previous posting, experiences that were shared respectively by speakers Amina Hajar Zahra, Herman Wijethunge, Lucila Pautrat, Frédéric Djinadja, Duncan Pollard and Katie Minderhoud. A few snippets follow.


  • Women pastoralists in northern Kenya are increasingly engaged in land use management decisions previously determined by men, in an initiative supported through Oxfam. Kenya’s new constitution, which demands that decision-making should be undertaken by no more than two thirds of either gender, is used as an argument for men and women to sit and decide together, despite religious and cultural traditions that call for separation of the sexes in public.
  • In Sri Lanka, a community campaign halted government plans for a sea plane landing area in the Negombo lagoon – a tourism development project that would have destroyed the livelihoods of the local fishing community. Although begun by men, it was women who had the courage to push the campaign to its successful conclusion.


  • Despite the affirmative policies and legal framework of the government of Peru regarding the position of women, there are still major gender imbalances. Thus many participants were surprised to learn that 74% of the staff of the Peruvian forest administration – including its director – are women. Swiss student Regula Kolar noted that by comparison, only 2% of the Swiss forest administration staff are women!
  • The government of Togo has allocated “gender cells” in all its ministries – but they lack funds or know-how. Training on gender issues in land tenure, using the gender evaluation criteria of the Global Land Tool Network, helped them to determine a clear plan of activities.

Private sector

  • Nestlé buys agricultural commodities from over 4 million farmers annually, the vast majority being smallholders. It has recently established a “Rural Development Framework” to better understand the livelihoods of these farmers – starting with baseline studies in its different countries of operation. Findings include that many of the smallholder producers are food insufficient (taken on an annual basis); the low incidence of women’s legal right to land was also made apparent. Nestlé is now pondering an appropriate response.
  • Soldaridad works to promote Voluntary Private Sector standards in commodity production – testing and improving such standards for soya, cotton, sugar cane and palm oil, amongst others. They aim to bring particular focus on land rights, community and gender relations, amongst other matters.

What conclusions can be drawn from these wide-ranging examples? Summarising always risks over-simplification. We know, for example, the importance of making the most of policy development opportunities – a significant number of countries have revised their constitutions in the last decade, and in some, such as Bolivia, Kenya, Nepal, this was actively used as an opportunity to promote women’s rights, including over land and land use decisions. Rights are not enough, though; women and men need to know about them, and be able to exercise them – here NGOs can often play a strong awareness raising and capacity building role (as indeed we do). It is wise not to “reinvent the wheel”, but to use or adapt tools and modules already developed, such as by the ILC and IIED. Government administrations that have a mixed workforce are more likely listen to both women and men; how to achieve this entails a variety of measures, including “women friendly” working conditions, job descriptions, and role models. The private sector needs to understand its suppliers better, be more conscious of social and sustainability issues, and – according to Nestlé – work more inclusively with governments and civil society… There is nothing very new here, but the details provided many practical insights and ideas for better future synergies.

It was a woman leader from the Andean region of Peru, Gladis Vila Pilue, who made the important point that not all women are the same, and that working with different women needs to be tailored appropriately. Quite so. It is important to ensure that the global call for action on land rights announced at the workshop takes this into account.

Jane Carter

Jane Carter

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5 Comments for «How to ensure rights to land and resources for local women as well as men?»

  1. Sabine

    08 October 2015 at 11:50

    Jane, thank you for this excellent summary. The sessions gave me a lot of food for thought and I wanted to share what I heard could be approaches/strategies worth scaling-up (since that was the topic of the Bern Conference):
    – quotas: there is a lot of debate about quotas (including in many European countries) and still a lot of doubt is cast on whether they work, but in my opinion the Kenya example given by Amina illustrated very well how quotas can really transform the role women play in a community. This is in addition to evidence from Indian panchayats that supports quotas as a means of empowering women (see here: for an academic take and here for a journalistic one:
    – leadership training for women: building women’s self-confidence should go hand in hand with a quota system so that participation is not just numerical, but so women speak up – within the community context, but eventually also outside of it.
    – last but no least, building alliances: this was much repeated throughout the Bern conference, not just in this session but also in plenary. It may somewhat vague, but probably is the most important approach of all, especially if alliances are built to include all affected communities (including indigenous people, pastoralists, farmers, plantation workers…) to mobilise for land rights together. Another aspects of building alliances that was raised by Andy White from RRI is to move out of your comfort zone and engage with those that may not be fully in line with your ideas. While he may not have thought specifically of building alliances to promote gender justice, many of the examples raised by participants in this session were actually about identifying common ground with actors not necessarily convinced of the need for gender equality and equity.
    I also really appreciated the point raised by your Helvetas colleague, Cesar, on the need to move the gender discussion beyond on women’s rights to actually address the power relations between (and within!) genders and to consider masculinity when working on gender issues. This is a point very well taken and if anyone has specific materials to share I would appreciate it!
    There may be many other approaches and tools and other participants may have had different ‘take home messages’ (than me – for those who were there, please share your thoughts!

  2. Carol J. Pierce Colfer

    09 October 2015 at 15:29

    I just thought that those who read this blog might also be interested in two new compilations on gender issues around the world:
    Colfer, Basnett and Elias (in press, 2016) “Gender and Forests: Climate Change, Tenure, Value Chains and Emerging Issues”, Earthscan, London.
    Colfer, Catacutan, Naz and Pottinger, eds. 2015 Special Issue on Gender and Agroforestry, International Forestry Review 17 (24).