Sri Lanka:
Defending Women’s Land Rights

The issue of access to land remains critical issues in Sri Lanka. The civil war that ravaged the country for thirty years ended in May 2009 with more than 300,000 persons left internally displaced.  Currently, the State is allocating new land to those who are being relocated to new areas, while those who were in possession of lands are reclaiming their lands.

Guaranteeing equal land rights and access to land for women is emerging as a critical issue within this context.  The war has seen as increase in the percentage of women who become single heads of households due to the disappearance, death, disability or migration of their spouses.  Indeed, women have been disproportionately affected by multiple displacements, not only due to the conflict but also due to the tsunami which ravaged the coastal belt in December 2004.  The burdens of rebuilding livelihoods and the uncertainties and insecurities that relocation brings have fallen hard on women.

While these burdens alone have been great, the fact that there has not been a gender-sensitive response only deepens women’s hardships.  In fact, women have faced systemic gender discrimination in land reallocation processes.  For example, in Sri Lanka, the application of the ‘head of the household’ concept has resulted in discrimination against women in relation to housing and land rights. This was particularly seen in the aftermath of the tsunami where women were disentitled to property as a consequence that the ‘head of the household’ (seen as being synonymous with being male) be authorized to sign official documentation.  The acceptance of the concept of head of the household in administrative procedures relegates the status of women to a secondary position.

Similarly, while Sri Lanka has been giving State land to the landless peasantry for many years, as a practice, it has only given these lands in single ownership.  Most often, it is the male that is given the property as he applies for the land and he is also considered the ‘head of the household.’  Again, it is a process which systematically excludes women.

To remedy the situation, Sri Lanka must ensure that joint or co-ownership of State land is given to both spouses that apply or others who apply jointly for land grants and land permits, taking into consideration the principles of equality and non discrimination in the Constitution.  In particular, Sri Lanka will need to amend the State Lands Ordinance to expressly provide that joint or co ownership shall be granted when the State allocates land to married couples or to others who apply jointly.

 The recent review (2011) of Sri Lanka by the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women highlighted the importance of these issues, and provided important recommendations which now need to be followed up on by civil society actors and implemented by State authorities.  There, the CEDAW Committee urged Sri Lanka to:

 (a) Abolish the concept of "head of household" in administrative practice and recognize joint or co-ownership of land;


(b) Speedily amend the Land Development Ordinance in order to ensure that joint or co-ownership be granted to both spouses when the State allocates land to married couples.

While these Concluding Observations are very important and useful from an advocacy perspective, little awareness exists among civil society, the donor community and others working in development initiatives on the CEDAW process and the Concluding Observations that are issued by the CEDAW Committee at the culmination of the State review.  The Global Initiative is currently working with partners on the ground to create awareness on the importance of the Concluding Observations and to ensure the follow up that is required from civil society.