New strategies needed to uproot deep barriers to land, resource rights for women

Gender Transformative Approaches aim to transform discriminatory systems
A woman harvests okok (Gnetum spp.) leaves in the village of Minwoho, Lekié, Center Region, Cameroon. Photo by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR-ICRAF

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From climate change to deforestation to biodiversity loss, global challenges are significantly worsened by barriers limiting land and resource rights for women worldwide – yet conventional approaches to gender mainstreaming don’t address these barriers adequately, says new research that urges a change in direction.

The brief Securing Women’s Resource Rights Through Gender Transformative Approaches  explores how gender transformative approaches (GTAs) can be applied in securing women’s land and resource rights to reap multiple benefits, for women and for society more broadly.

But don’t expect simple, or easy, answers.

The very definition of GTAs is fluid and evolving – but it’s clear their design must be collaborative, encourage multiple voices and perspectives, and be grounded in the specific context where they’re applied, say the researchers whose work underpins the brief.

“This is a live conversation that is dynamic, and to be relevant, we all have to be part of the discussion that is changing all the time,” said Miranda Morgan, researcher with the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

“The aim is getting as much diversity of representation as possible,” she added. “With this brief, we’re putting a definition of Gender Transformative Approaches on women’s resource rights out there for discussion.”

GTAs are different from other gender integration approaches, said project lead Anne Larson, principal scientist and team leader for Governance, Equity and Wellbeing with the  Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry Centre (CIFOR-ICRAF).

“With GTAs, the emphasis is on transformation, which means not simply including or ‘empowering’ women, but rather transforming the deep-rooted and structural barriers to gender equality, such as discriminatory systems, formal policies, and informal institutions like social norms, through a bundle of activities and processes,” she said.

Research ongoing in Asia, Africa, and Latin America

The research underlying the brief forms part of a larger body of work on securing women’s resource rights through the Global Initiative for Gender Transformative Approaches, a three-year initiative by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)  working with CIFOR-ICRAF, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT. As a consortium, it’s working with selected IFAD rural development projects in six countries representing a variety of local conditions and interventions: Bangladesh, Colombia, Ethiopia, the Gambia, Kyrgyzstan, and Uganda.

The brief underscores the necessity of collective action to target deeply-rooted and structural barriers within the system as a whole to achieve significant change that strengthens women’s land and resource rights. That contrasts with methods that focus on individual transformation, which tend towards ‘fixing women’ rather than addressing systemic issues and ‘fixing the system’, the brief notes.

“Fundamentally, nobody else can empower women; by definition, that has to be something done by women,” said Ruth Meinzen-Dick, senior research fellow with IFPRI.

“But what outside projects can do is to help change the structural conditions. So instead of saying ‘we’re going to empower women,’ more careful thinking is required about ‘what can our project do to change structural conditions’?”

Transformation towards more equitable land and resource rights requires interventions to change formal and informal institutions across multiple scales, from the individual and household, to the community and collective, as well as to the larger society, said Larson.

Too often, barriers to women’s access, control, and use of land and resources are reinforced by inadequate legal frameworks, ineffective implementation of policy at national and local levels, contradictions between formal and customary regimes, exclusion of women from decision-making and governance systems, and discriminatory social norms, attitudes and practices, she added.

Plain language to start discussions

The brief offers a plain-language starting point for discussions while a longer how-to note with in-depth case studies from the initiative’s research is being developed for practitioners, said Larson.

“This is for anyone looking for more substance, based on principles, and it offers specifics to try to help people understand what transformation in tenure actually means.”

Merely including a woman’s name on a land title is not, by itself, transformative, nor is a national policy that assures women’s names are on titles but doesn’t make clear that they have land rights. Access without rights has been referred to as ‘tolerated use’ by Ruth Meinzen-Dick, a collaborator on the project from IFPRI, and colleagues.

That said, the brief emphasizes that resource tenure covers more than formal property rights recognized by governments, such as land titles or state forests, but also includes customary systems as well as the unwritten, informal practices through which rural people gain (or are restricted from) access to natural resources.

The authors state that women must have long-term security to underpin their ability to lead and to make decisions about the future of land and resources, free of the threat of violence (domestic or otherwise), in relevant household, community and external forums and entities; and to inherit, own and earn a living from land on par with men. Like other grassroots approaches, GTAs should be led by, or include in meaningful ways, those who are targeted by relevant initiatives. They should also define the goals and measures of success.

The brief, and the larger initiative on resource rights for women to which it contributes, provides tools and processes to support the development of GTAs. However, these are not blueprints.

“If we are true to the ideal of multiple voices and perspectives and influence, that is necessarily going to look different in different contexts and difference places,” said Marlène Elias, senior scientist and gender research coordinator with the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT.

Ultimately, notes the brief, success will be recognized when “legal and policy frameworks support women to secure land rights, and these laws are implemented, enforced and budgeted….when women know and demand their rights to land and fully enjoy them.”

This research is part of work on Securing Women’s Resource Rights through Gender-Transformative approaches. In 2020, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) invited a consortium of the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry Centre (CIFOR-ICRAF), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) to work with selected IFAD projects to promote and strengthen women’s land rights through the integration of gender transformative approaches (GTAs) in rural development interventions by improving policies, tools and practices.

For more information on this topic, please contact Anne Larson at
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