Land rights key to empowering women

What makes women always live as dependants of fathers, brothers or husbands? What makes them suffer silently and always be the ones to ‘adjust’ and ‘compromise’ even when they are trapped in abusive or exploitative relationships, at the cost of their dignity and self-respect?

Bina Agarwal, a development economist, has said that landlessness is the most significant cause of female oppression in India. This is what robs them of the freedom to break free from such relationships and live independently, with their self-esteem intact. 

Even when progressive laws have given them equal rights to land and/or property in their natal homes, they have been conditioned or pressured by families to sacrifice their share in the interest of good relations with their male siblings. Further, any property acquired by the husband after marriage is almost always registered solely in his name as he is the sole ‘bread-winner’. That the wife has done tireless unpaid work beside him which enabled him to save enough to acquire the land/
property is rarely recognised. 

Thus, we need to go beyond providing women with gas stoves and toilets — which are no doubt essential — to also empower them with the more crucial land and property rights.

Most women in India, 41 crore of them, are in fact the backbone of farming, working longer hours than men, but over 87% of them do not own land.

In Karnataka, almost 80% of women rural workers do back-breaking work on farms, while the corresponding figure for men is only about 66%. Yet, almost 83% of the total land owned in Karnataka is in the names of men. Thus, there is no recognition of the woman farmer’s enormous contribution to feeding the country and she cannot claim loans for cultivation, loan waivers, crop insurance, or subsidies — and her family cannot claim compensation in case she commits suicide.

To draw attention to this disempowerment of women, a march, the ‘Mahila Bhoomi Adhikaar Samvad Yatra’, originating from Thiruvananthapuram, traversed through Karnataka in late August. It was initiated by the Ekta Mahila Manch, the women’s wing of Ekta Parishad, and MAKAAM (Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch).

It is a part of five yatras (of women, the landless, Dalits, Adivasis and marginal farmers) originating from five corners of the country as part of Jan Andolan 2018, a sign of the growing demand by farmers that the country care for them.  The five yatras will converge in Palwal in Haryana and conclude with a five-day march of 25,000 people, beginning on October 2, from Palwal to Delhi.

There are five recommendations that will be handed over to the Government of India, including women’s entitlement to land and farmer’s rights, to marital property and homestead land.

It also calls for the re-activation of the shelved MS Swaminathan Women Farmers’ Entitlement Bill (2011), which urges greater subsidised support to water, credit and other inputs for women land-owners.

The yatra in Karnataka demanded that women farmers should be recognised by giving them ID cards; that location-wise, gender-disaggregated land record data be collected and concrete steps taken to address the inherent inequalities; that the Land Reforms Policy of Karnataka should be reviewed to ensure subsidised loans for land ownership and leasing by landless women; that marginalised women’s collectives, especially, should be given rights to manage the commons and also to lease fallow land, which is an unbelievable 21 lakh hectares in Karnataka. Kudumbashree in Kerala, which has enabled collective ecological farming on leased land by a ‘Green Army’ of women, with support by government, has provided sustainable livelihoods for women.  

To address all the above demands, women activists and farmers are urging the government to set up a Joint Committee, with representatives of genuine women farmers (and not merely of educated women), civil society members as well as senior officials of all departments concerned. This committee should hold wide-ranging, multi-stakeholder, state-wide consultations and provide a roadmap for the provision of land in the names of women and implement it.

Since many women face violence and are also killed for failing to bring a dowry, there is the fear that giving women ownership to land/property may subject them to increased violence and pressures to transfer these to men.

Hence the demand is for a law to ensure that land/property in the name of a woman cannot be alienated for a fixed number of years; that such land/property should be inheritable only by close female relatives; and that all cases of violence against the allottee be investigated and violators punished speedily.

Women activists urge that public land distribution to women should be seen as “an act of ‘public purpose’ that is of equal or higher primacy as other ‘public purposes’ cited for land acquisition for development projects”. From a women’s perspective, land is not to be seen as just an asset to be acquired and sold but as the “source of a woman’s security, dignity, identity, empowerment and sustainable livelihood”.

(The writer is Executive Trustee of CIVIC-Bangalore)

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Land rights key to empowering women

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