3. Advocating for Women’s Rights to Land and other Productive Resources


In many parts of the world, women’s basic rights to land and productive resources continue to be systematically denied. They are denied in law, but even more so in practice, leaving women dependent almost entirely upon the men in their lives for their most basic economic survival. Women’s inability to access, use and control land productive resources on an equal basis with men entrenches women’s poverty, but it also reinforces gender inequality and relegates women to a subjugated position within their families, communities and societies – both socially and economically. 

GI-ESCR works to consolidate, strengthen and advance a progressive framework related to economic, social and cultural rights. Our work builds upon past successes to continually advance women’s rights by strengthening the normative framework protecting these rights, with a particular focus on Africa, and prioritises partnership with national civil society organisations in achievement of goals.

Our work in this area focuses specifically on: (1) Utilising strategic spaces at international and regional levels to advance these rights, namely the human rights treaty bodies of the United Nations and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR); (2) Strengthening partnerships and networks working on these issues, particularly between international and national organisations, including  by continuing ongoing strategic discussions and partnerships between key actors and organisations working on these issues; (3) Highlighting the relevance of women’s land rights in international discourse, particularly related to housing, the rights of rural women, climate change, food and nutrition security, sustainable development and other relevant issues; and (4) Contributing to the creation of new human rights standards on these issues.

UN Independent Expert on foreign debt and human rights

In 2018 we intervened with the UN Independent Expert on foreign debt and human rights to inform his thematic report to the General Assembly on the impact of economic reforms and austerity measures on women’s human rights. Our original submission and subsequent input included information on women’s rights to land and productive resources. These themes were reflected in his final report (paras 43 and 90), where the Independent Expert highlighted that “The lack of security of tenure over land used to sustain livelihoods has important implications for the enjoyment of the right to food and housing, especially in terms of access and availability, while also putting those women at risk of eviction and dispossession. One of the results of economic reforms and rising food and fuel prices has been an increase in large-scale land acquisitions. Because women make up the majority of the world’s small farmers, such acquisitions make their situation even more precarious, either further depriving them of access to land or making their rights over land less secure.” 

Climate change and women’s rights to land and productive resources

With our partner Landesa, GI-ESCR submitted a Written Submission in Response to a Questionnaire in relation to Human Rights Council Resolution A/HRC/RES/38/4 on human rights and climate change.  In our submission we noted that gender-equal land rights are a critical missing piece in climate change strategies at global, national, and local levels. Land literally underlies climate change impacts, both environmental and human—and women’s human rights are impacted most negatively and severely; and conversely, land is essential to key interventions to mitigate climate change. But land is often overlooked in global conversations about climate change, even when agriculture, forests, and land degradation (all arenas inextricably tied to land) are centrally featured in these same conversations. And women are often absent or marginalised in global, national, and local-level decision-making spaces where climate change interventions related to land are conceptualised, designed, and adopted, despite the key roles they play in sustainable land and natural resource management. Directing resources to strengthening women’s rights to land and women’s participation in land governance is a strategic strategy to simultaneously address climate change and its impacts, and to achieve gender equality. Our submission further highlighted that:

●       In regions of the world most affected by climate change, women bear the brunt of increased natural disasters, displacement, unpredictable rain fall, decreased food production, and increased hunger and poverty. 

●       When women hold secure rights to land, efforts to tackle climate change are more successful, and responsibilities and benefits associated with climate change response programs are more equitably distributed.

●       Human rights bodies have called for a gender-responsive approach to land management and land rights in climate change interventions related to mitigation, adaptation, and resiliency.

●       Participation is a central theme related to gender, climate change and land. Women are often absent from national decision-making spaces related to land management and governance, and this includes decisions about climate change interventions.

●       Women are effective land managers. Where women have secure rights to use and access land, evidence suggests that they use resources sustainably. 

The final report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reflected our input and contained a standalone section on food security and access to land (see paras 6-8).  In fact, in the text of the report the OHCHR gave a public nod to our advocacy work, highlighting in para 58:

“The Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and partners engaged with the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women on the Committee’s reviews of Maldives and Tuvalu to highlight exclusion of women from formal decision-making on climate change and discrimination with respect to land rights.  In both cases, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women emphasized the importance of ensuring women’s rights to participation in climate change policy, in disaster management and in natural resource governance.  This type of engagement with human rights mechanisms can trigger recommendations and government action, and also supported the elaboration of the Committee’s general recommendation No. 37.”

Also on the theme of climate change and women’s land rights, in 2018 International Women’s Day was marked by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), with the adoption of a General Recommendation on disaster risk reduction in the context of climate change. The General Recommendation (GR 37) is the first interpretative guidance issued by a United Nations human rights treaty body to support States parties to understand and act on, the gender dimensions of disaster risk reduction in the context of climate change. GR 37 calls on States to integrate a gender perspective within climate change and disaster risk reduction programs, to guarantee women’s equality, sustainable socio-economic development and climate resilience.

GR 37 incorporated our specific feedback on women’s land rights and stated that:

To ensure substantive equality between women and men in the context of disaster risk reduction and climate change, States parties should take specific, targeted and measurable steps: (a)    To identify and eliminate all forms of discrimination, including intersecting forms of discrimination, against women in legislation, policies, programmes, plans and other activities relating to disaster risk reduction and climate change. Priority should be accorded to addressing discrimination in relation to the ownership, access, use, disposal, control, governance and inheritance of property, land and natural resources, …. (at para 31).

For more information, please see GI-ESCR’s first and second written submissions with Landesa and APWLD informing this process.

Advocacy before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR)

We have worked for several years with our partners, including IGED-Africa, to place women’s land rights on the agenda of the ACHPR and to encourage the adoption of specific regional standards on these issues. In 2018 we succeeded in having the ACHPR adopt a resolution affirming its intention to elaborate a General Comment on Article 7(d) of the Maputo Protocol, on 'equitable share.' This is a goal on which we have been working with partners since 2013, and we hope that the General Comment will be adopted in 2019. 

In its resolution, the ACHPR expressed concern “that lack of access to land and other productive resources continue to have a negative impact on the enjoyment of various human rights for women” and that “some countries maintain regressive standards when it comes to defining ‘equitable share,’ such that women are not able to enjoy equal property rights upon separation, divorce or annulment of a marriage.” It further noted that “women’s access to, use of and control over land and other productive resources are essential to ensuring their right to equality and to an adequate standard of living,” and that there is a “need to clarify various legal issues pertaining to women’s property rights and equality in marriage, particularly in cases of separation, divorce or annulment of a marriage; including clarity on the legal obligations of States so as to  establish a continent-wide standard based on human rights principles.” The ACHPR decided to elaborate General Comments on Article 7 (d) of the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa, which requires State Parties to enact appropriate legislation to ensure that women and men enjoy the same rights in case of separation, divorce or annulment of marriage, and that women and men shall have the right to an equitable sharing of the joint property deriving from the marriage in such circumstances.  It also decided to collaborate with relevant stakeholders working on issues of land and property rights in the drafting of the General Comments.

Collective strategising on women’s rights to land and productive resources

We seek a strengthened and more consolidated and coordinated movement to advance women’s rights to land and productive resources at international and regional levels.  This work therefore focuses on strengthening and deepening partnerships between organisations engaging in this area of work, including women in Africa organising through legal networks, as well as with international organisations active on these issues. Such organisations include the International Land Coalition (ILC), Landesa, ESCR-Net, ActionAid, FAO, UN-Women, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), among others. To achieve this goal, it is also important to connect with actors working in various issue areas, such as housing, rural women, climate change, food and nutrition security, sustainable development, etc., in order to ensure the visibility of women’s rights to land and productive resources.

In 2018 we co-facilitated a collective strategising call on women’s rights to land and productive resources. GI-ESCR participated along with IGED-Africa, ILSA, Landesa, and ILC. The call provided an opportunity to discuss potential opportunities for joint advocacy at the UN and ACHPR.

Further, within the ESCR-Net Steering Committee on Women & ESC rights, GI-ESCR plays a key role on women’s rights to land and productive resources. In 2018, a webinar was held within the working group to discuss a network-wide campaigning theme, looking at women’s rights to land and productive resources.

Assessing implementation of CEDAW Concluding Observations on Kenya

From our considerable success in gaining progressive pronouncements on women’s rights to land and productive resources, particularly within the context of UN treaty body reviews, we have a keen interest in understanding the ways in which Concluding Observations are or are not implemented at the domestic level, and the barriers to implementation. To further our understanding of implementation at the national level, we have sought to engage pilot projects, together with partners, to assess the level of implementation on key issues of legal reform and policy change.  

To begin, in 2018 we began working together with Indiana University (International Law and Institutions Program), FIDA-Kenya, and IANGEL to assess domestic level implementation of CEDAW Concluding Observations relevant to women’s land rights in Kenya. Kenya was chosen because of the particularly strong Concluding Observations from CEDAW on women’s land rights in 2017. At the time, GI-ESCR and FIDA-Kenya had submitted a joint written submission for Kenya’s review before CEDAW, highlighting various concerns with respect to the status of women’s land and property rights in the country.