Women’s Access to Land – FIG Guidelines

Principles for Equitable Gender Inclusion in Land Administration:
Background Report and Guidelines



Executive Summary 

1. Introduction

1.1 Why should surveyors be concerned?
1.2 Scope and outline of report 

2. What is Access to Land and Why is it Important?

2.1 Access to land and its resources 

3. Why is Gender an Issue in Land Reform and Land Administration Reform?

3.1 Documenting customary tenure
3.2 Changing cultural and religious beliefs
3.3 Gender targeted development projects

4. A Summary of the Major Concerns

5. Monitoring and Evaluating the Land Situation of Women

6. The Role of International, National, and Non-Governmental Organizations

7. With the Help of Surveyors – Recommended Guidelines for Surveyors in Land Administration Projects

7.1 Land administration procedures should accommodate all segments of the population
7.2 Removing barriers to access to information
7.3 Increasing awareness about the obstacles hindering women’s participation
7.4 Working with the local customary community

8. Conclusion


Orders of the printed copies


This report was commissioned by the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG) through the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida) and Swedesurvey AB to develop a set of guidelines for ensuring that land reform and land administration projects in developing countries and countries in transition are gender inclusive. These guidelines are not relevant only for projects but to any land administration organisation. The work is based on research conducted at the University of New Brunswick and on experience in a number of development projects in Africa, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia. It is a also a further extension of research conducted by UNCHS and Sida for Habitat II in Istanbul and by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

This report is adopted by FIG Commission 7 (Cadastre and Land Management) and its Working Group Women’s Access to Land. Although Commission 7 focus in more in the rural areas this report and its guidelines can also be used in land management projects and land administration organisations in all human settlements.

The guidelines presented for surveyors have been endorsed by the FIG General Assembly in Seoul, Korea in May 2001.

On behalf of FIG we would like to express our special thanks to Katalin Komjathy and Dr. Susan E Nichols for their great work with this report as well as to Agneta Ericsson as the Chair of the Commission 7 task force on Women’s Access to Land and the members of her task force. Further we express our thanks to Sida and Swedesurvey for their financial support in producing this report.

Robert W. Foster 
President of FIG Chairperson

Dr. Paul Munro-Faure
FIG Commission 7 – Cadastre and Land Management

Women’s Access to Land – FIG Guidelines

Principles for Equitable Gender Inclusion in Land Administration:
Background Report and Guidelines

Katalin Komjathy and Susan E. Nichols
Department of Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering
University of New Brunswick
Fredericton, NB, E3B 5A3

The FIG Working Group on Women’s Access to Land

FIG Commission 7 – Cadastre and Land Administration

Swedesurvey AB, Gävle, Sweden

The International Federation of Surveyors FIG

Executive Summary

Land development and administration projects and programmes, as well as other land-related activities, are expected to positively influence the socio-economic and physical environment of societies. Yet sometimes good intentions are not enough and sometimes interventions actually cause harm for particular groups. One such group that is sometimes at risk in land titling projects, housing and urban development projects, and agricultural improvement programmes are women. For example, implementing an irrigation project on marginal land that has been traditionally used by women may lead to repossession of this improved land by the men of the community. Issuing certificates of title to the de jure head of household (usually men) may deprive the de facto heads of household (increasingly women) from benefiting from a land administration process.

The purpose of this document is to:

  1. provide background information to surveyors and other land professionals on why gender issues matter in development projects;

  2. to provide draft guidelines to assist development project managers, surveyors, land administration agencies, and others in ensuring that land administration enhances and protects the rights of all stakeholders, including women.

Why Gender Matters in Land Administration, Development, and Management

There are a number of factors that have raised the need for more equitable gender inclusion in land-related activities, including the following:

  1. Many societies have protected the interests of women through customary law, religious law, and legislation. However, as societies change through for example, labour migration, divorce, education, and urban growth, the old rules are not always enough to ensure that women have access to the land, shelter, credit and other resources they require to raise children and care for other family members.

  2. Where pressure on land is intense, through for example, environmental degradation or urban sprawl, women are often relegated to the less profitable tracts of land. Yet woman in developing countries are responsible for up to 80 or 90% of rural agricultural production.

  3. Women's rights in land are often different than those of men in traditional societies and "western" land titling approaches cannot always protect these partial and use rights. For example, they may have limited rights to gather firewood, to harvest fruit, or to return to family land in the future. How can certificates of title capture (and thus protect) these interests during privatization and/or legalization programmes?

  4. There are equity and human rights issues at stake. And even if there were not, women’s access to land should be protected because women are often the most productive, yet the most needy, segment of society with respect to land.

Without specific attention to gender inclusiveness, an important segment of society will excluded from the benefits of land administration, management, and development schemes.

How The Processes Can be Improved

This report points out that one of the main ways to maintain or enhance equitable gender inclusion in land-related activities is to first understand more about the complex and dynamic nature of many tenure systems. Land administration projects and programmes targeting equitable gender inclusion also need to include evaluating and monitoring components. The indicators assessing the quality and quantity of access to land and housing before, during, and after an intervention are essential to make informed decisions about forthcoming actions.

In land-related projects, the number of registered titles or the number of certificates handed out is too often the only "measure" of who holds what rights in land. These do not always capture the lesser traditional rights that are most often held by women. Nor do they necessarily refer to the de facto head of household and decision maker or to the "unmarried partner". Legislation may exist and may even have provisions for protecting women in cases of inheritance or divorce. However, what real access do many poor women have to legal assistance and procedures, especially if they are acting against traditional family or community interests?

This report therefore begins a process of documenting some of the indicators that may better represent the quality and quantity of rights of access to land and natural resources. These include for example:

  • Access to the local customary decision-making bodies and their theoretical and real roles in these bodies;

  • Social status in the community based on access to land;

  • Role in decision making;

  • Participation in formal and informal land transactions and housing markets (and the types of transactions);

  • Income sources for men and women;

  • Percentage of population by gender depending on agriculture for their livelihood;

  • Share in formal and informal agricultural labour;

  • Proportion of food produced directly by women;

  • Percentage of people by gender living in rural and urban areas.

Draft Guidelines for Equitable Gender Inclusion

The guidelines developed in this report are arranged around four major objectives:

  1. Establishing land administration procedures that accommodate all segments of the population;

  2. Removing barriers women face while they seek information regarding their rights and responsibilities associated with land and housing;

  3. Broadening practitioners’ understanding and appreciation of the circumstances that limit women’s participation in land related matters, and the importance of finding alternative means to include women in those decisions; and

  4. Working with the local customary community.

These guiding principles are directed towards project managers in international and national development activities, towards surveyors in general, and towards land administration agencies in all countries.

In no way are the guidelines presented here exhaustive. The FIG Working Group on Women’s Access to land therefore welcomes comments and additions to this work.

Principles for Equitable Gender Inclusion in Land Administration:
Background Report and Guidelines

Katalin Komjathy and Susan E. Nichols

1. Introduction

Land and housing are central issues in developing economies. How land tenure issues are addressed in development projects can directly impact the livelihood and security of people in urban, peri-urban, and rural settings. Failing to address the land and shelter rights of all stakeholders in a land development project or programme can cause unexpected problems and inequities, and often for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society.

Whether due to tradition, law, education, or economics, women are sometimes at risk in land development projects, even if it is intended that they share the benefits. For example, improving irrigation on women’s fields may have the unintended effect of having these now valuable fields reclaimed by men in the community. Enhancing housing in a community or peri-urban area may have similar unintended results when the units become more marketable. Professionals, such as surveyors, who are involved with land and housing projects therefore need to be aware of gender issues and need to ensure that the real objectives of the projects are truly met.

The purpose of this document is twofold:

  1. to provide background information to surveyors and other land professionals on why gender issues matter in development projects;

  2. to provide guidelines to assist development project managers, surveyors, land administration agencies, and others in ensuring that land administration enhances and protects the rights of all stakeholders, including women.

This report was commissioned by the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG) through the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida) and Swedesurvey AB to develop a set of guidelines for ensuring that land reform and land administration projects in developing countries and countries in transition are gender inclusive. The work is based on research conducted at the University of New Brunswick and on experience in a number of development projects. It is a further extension of initial work conducted by UNCHS and Sida for Habitat II in Istanbul and by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

1.1 Why surveyors should be concerned

Access to land affects nearly all areas of policy development. For example, it has direct relationships to agricultural production and ensuring long term food security. It is a basic component of achieving sustainable development. Access to land is also a means by which resources and benefits of those resources are distributed within society, whether they be adequate shelter, municipal services, or decision-making powers. Finally, but not least of all, equitable access to land is a human rights issue and as the UN Economic and Social Council Commission on the Status of Women states, "land rights discrimination is a violation of human rights".

The dramatic demographic, economic and social changes affecting urban and rural communities in emerging economies often marginalise those who are ill-equipped to cope with these shifts. Whether the issue is urban migration for employment, the decreasing role of men in the community due to labour opportunities elsewhere, or the need to readjust household relations to accommodate the elderly, the orphaned, and the sick, people need to be able to access land and shelter efficiently and equitably. As nontraditional family arrangements emerge, and as rural lands become engulfed in the urban fringe, the greatest risks are increasingly to the well-being of the poor, the elderly, women, and children. Political conflicts, environmental degradation, disease, and population growth accelerate the stress on land resources. As Crowley [2001] points out in a recent article in The Economist:

There is an enormous case for investing in women…women are an underused resource. And the fact that in many places they have no access to credit hampers rural development.

According to the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), it is the city that is attracting investment as well as people, and this trend will continue to accelerate in the future. Friedmann estimates that in a worldwide scale 30-40 percent of urban populations are female-maintained. That number can be expected to be larger in many developing countries where more people may comprise "a household. Yet, how many housing and urban development projects are targeted to the specific needs of women and their dependents?

The 1996 World Food Summit held in Rome pointed out that if we are to meet the basic food needs of the projected world population as well as eradicate hunger afflicting an estimated 800 million food-deficit people, we must have more and better food production and distribution. Recent work by UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has found that indeed it is not uncommon to find that de facto female headed households form a substantial proportion (25 percent or more, and sometimes a majority) of the total rural households in certain rural areas. Although the percentage of women engaged in agricultural activities varies from community to community, it is estimated that it can be as high as 90 percent in some areas. Globally women comprise 40 percent or more of the agricultural workforce. It has been long acknowledged that providing food for the family is primarily the responsibility of women. Yet women’s direct access to land resources, credit, and shelter can be put at risk in programmes such as land titling, formalization of property rights, and even housing or road improvements.

The need for a revised land tenure policy framework that explicitly addresses women’s access to land is also underscored by the Women’s Summit findings that in most of today’s societies women have very unequal access to, and control over land, housing associated resources, and basic infrastructure. Surveyors and other land professionals, who help to establish how land rights are allocated, adjudicated, and protected, need to be more aware that gender inclusive land policies and land institutions are critical. A first step in this direction is understanding the complexities behind a simple term such as "access to land".

1.2 Scope and outline of this report

If there is a common variable in all the information accumulated, it is the complexity of the issues involved. We cannot recommend a general outline that will fit all circumstances in the international development field. The intention here is to raise awareness of some of the most critical issues that threaten women’s access to benefits from land and emphasize the importance of developing a better understanding of the situation for urban and rural women in specific societies.

We begin with a working definition of what access to land and security of title mean to women and men and their importance in rural and urban settings. How recent changes have been affecting the relationship between women and land are examined together with what are (and can be) the outcomes with and without appropriate actions. A summary of key indicators that can be used by surveyors, project managers, and others to evaluate and monitor women’s access to land is presented in Part 5. The report then outlines recommended guidelines for land administration projects, first from the perspective of national and international organizations. More detailed principles are then presented to the surveying community for discussion and improvement within the FIG.

2. What is Access to Land and Why is it Important?

Throughout history, land has been recognized as a primary source of wealth, social status, and power. It is the basis for shelter, food, and economic activities; it is the most significant provider of employment opportunities in rural areas and is an increasingly scarce resource in urban areas. Access to water and other resources, as well as to basic services such as sanitation and electricity, is often conditioned by access to and holding rights in a unit of land. The willingness and ability to make long term investments in housing and in arable land is directly dependent on the protection society affords the rights holders. Thus, any concept of sustainable development relies heavily on both access to property rights and the security of those rights.

Land also has great cultural, religious, and legal significance. There is a strong correlation in many societies between decision-making powers and the quantity and quality of land rights one holds. In rural areas social inclusion or exclusion often depend solely on the individual’s land holding status. Even in urban areas, the right to participate in municipal planning, in community decisions, and sometimes elections, can depend on the status of an individual as a "resident" or "home owner".

2.1 Access to land and its resources

Access is the right or opportunity to use, manage, or control land and its resources. It includes the ability to reach and make use of the resource. When describing access to land, we can distinguish between quantitative parameters (such as the nature of tenure, the size of the parcel and its economic value) and qualitative parameters (for example, legal security, and documented, or registered evidence of rights to land). These parameters play an important role in "measuring" access to land before, during and after development projects.

In societies following customary rules, women’s direct access to land through purchase or inheritance is often limited. Since women are the major producers of household food supply there are usually customary provisions for indirect access to land in terms of use rights as community members, wives, mothers, sisters, or daughters. These use rights, however, do not grant enough security for women when traditional family structures dissolve. The economic and social well-being of women and their children are at increased risk when women face widowhood and divorce, or when the male head of household does not or cannot exercise his traditional responsibilities to his family.

In many communities, access to resources is governed by both written and customary laws. In instances when conflicts exist between traditional norms and national laws, as is often the case when women’s rights are considered, local norms generally prevail and are enforced by community members. Written national laws granting women equal access to productive resources are essential but for these rights to be legitimate and adhered to, it is necessary to secure the support of the local community. Thus "having a law" does not necessarily mean that women have equitable recourse to remedies should the law be broken.

Equitable access to land does not only mean the quantity of rights allocated. To make use of the rights and opportunities, access to land must also be enforceable or secure (for example, against seizure by force or by law). Equitable access must also be effective, i.e., by including equitable access to other resources such as irrigation, roads or finance. The support of legal, customary and family institutions are fundamental if women’s access to land is to be preserved and improved.

Figure 1. Institutions that Affect Women’s Access to Land and Housing Rights

3. Why is Gender an Issue in Land Reform and Land Administration Reform?

The body of evidence stressing that outcomes of land reform and land administration programmes and projects have different implications for men and women has grown significantly in recent years. Traditionally, the involvement of men in such programs was viewed as sufficient and it was assumed that women and children would equally enjoy the benefits of the projects as dependents. As poverty and landlessness continues to expand and "feminization" of poverty becomes more apparent, development organizations and practitioners have had to seek a new direction to tackle these problems. Furthermore, as social, political and economical changes continue to undermine women’s ability to secure adequate housing, fulfill the food requirement of the household and use land in a sustainable manner, development projects have begun observing women’s priorities and concerns as separate issues.

The timeliness of this new vision is underscored by some experience from the past. As Rocheleau and Edmunds [1997] comment:

Women who enjoy access to a variety of tree, forest and rangeland resources across the rural landscape may find their access restricted after formal land titling or land tenure reforms have invested greater powers of exclusion in land owners, whether male or female. Even where formal title is given jointly to a husband and wife, a woman may lose decision-making authority over her former domains on and off farm as the household ‘heads’ take on the full and exclusive responsibility for the management of household land and all the plants and animals upon it.

Another example is given by Lastarria-Cornhiel [1997].

Among the Mandinka (…) of Gambia both common and individual property rights are recognized: family-cleared land designated maruo collectively farmed by the family but under the control of the male household head; and individually cleared land designated kamanyango which if cleared by a woman gives her access to land with partial autonomy, controlling the profits and able to transfer land to daughters. In the late 1940s and early 1950s women sought to establish kamanyango rights of new rice lands by clearing former mangrove swamps. In 1984, the Jahaly Pacharr irrigation project, designed to increase productivity of the rice paddies by enabling year-round cultivation, recognizing that women were the key farmers on this land, sought to title the land to women. Household heads (generally male) registered the land in women’s names but then designated it as maruo land.

The "Toolkit on Gender in Agriculture", prepared by the World Bank includes the following observation:

Land title and tenure tend to be vested in men, either by legal condition or by sociocultural norms. Land reform and resettlement have tended to reinforce this bias against tenure for women. Land shortage is common among women. Compared to men, women farm smaller and more dispersed plots and are less likely to hold title, secure tenure, or the same rights to use, improve or dispose of land.

Researchers put women’s land ownership between 1 and 2 percent on a world-wide scale, while they report that women comprise 10-90 percent of the agricultural labour force. The percentage of population living in households that can be considered de facto or de jure female-headed household is on the rise. Women produce most of the household’s food supply and their contribution to the overall food production is also significant, exceeding 50 percent in African nations of the Sub-Saharan region.

The following subsections further demonstrate how difficult it can be to protect or enhance women’s access to land and its benefits.

3.1 Documenting customary tenure

In several African countries (e.g., Zimbabwe, Uganda, Malawi) there have been recent discussions and proposals to document or register customary rights in land as part of the development of national land policies. The arguments for these certificates of customary tenure and for registration are that the processes will:

  • provide greater security of tenure on customary lands;
  • provide a document that can be used as collateral for credit;
  • provide more information for planning and land management.

Despite the merits or limitations of the processes, there could be significant impacts on women’s access to land. The major difficulty is the fact that such documentation effectively freezes customary rules that are in place at the time. No account is made, for example, of such future rights as the right of a woman to return home and receive a parcel of family land after a divorce. Limited rights such as the right to pick fruit or gather wood on another’s property may be eliminated by the documentation. And then there is the question of whose name(s) the certificates or registers will record. For example, will the name be the de facto head of household, who may be a woman whose husband works away from home, or the de jure head of household according to customary law; there are limitations with both of these approaches, including the problem of whether the documents have priority over customary law in cases of inheritance when both names are recorded.

3.2 Changing cultural and religious beliefs

Traditional laws and religious laws often protected women and provided for wives, widows, and female children through other means than, for instance, equal land shares on inheritance. In Islamic law, for example, girls may receive 1/2 the land that sons receive on the death of their father. This is in effect their dowry to bring to a marriage. The sons on the other hand have the responsibility to provide for unmarried sisters and their mother and in theory require more land. Other cultures have had similar traditional laws.

The difficulty today is that traditional societies and religious based communities are not immune to the influence and social changes around them. Education of women and greater opportunities for employment and self-sufficiency are affecting many traditional communities. Divorce, desertion, and urban migration may also challenge the traditional safety nets. And the devastation of aids and war have fragmented the extended and traditional family arrangements. At the same time, in the midst of obvious need for changes, who has the right to demand they be made or to force another community to adopt its values? This certainly raises ethical dilemmas for the professional.

3.3 Gender targeted development projects

International aid organizations have been targeting women for special assistance for decades. More recently protection and enhancement of women’s rights to land has become a focus for some land reform projects. One of the difficulties is that these projects often enhance the value of the land. So, for example, women may have had parcels of marginal land in the community to raise personal crops. After a land development project, this land has received irrigation and a new road is built. The value of the land is thus enhanced. Will local authorities allow these women to maintain their land rights after the project is over? Experience in, for example, housing projects have shown that making improvements may lead to the loss of the right to use a house allocated to a woman on communally owned land.

The objective of this discussion is not to discourage action. Instead it was to demonstrate that making changes does not always result in the benefits originally intended. The situation is complex.

4. A Summary of the Major Concerns

An FAO study identified the following factors as the major causes of poverty and hunger among rural women and their families:

  • women’s lack of access and control over productive resources and services
  • rural women are seriously over- and underemployed
  • persistent inequalities between men and women considering employment opportunities and compensation
  • exclusion of women and the poor from decision- and policy-making
  • legal environments that favours men’s rights over women’s rights

There are many new pressures affecting traditional arrangements related to women and land that need to be understood and resolved at the family, community, and national levels. To summarise, some of the greatest pressures include:

  • changing socio-economic conditions, such as increased population, new types of employment and the growing cash economies;
  • urban and peri-urban migration; incorporation and/or replacement of traditional tribal and religious institutions by national and local government structures;
  • divorce and changes in inheritance patterns;
  • the resulting role of women as sole household provider.

Kalabamu and Njoh express concern over the constraints urban women face in their attempt to secure acceptable housing. Among the primary impediments are:

  • obtaining title that enables formal land registration is unmanageable for the poor, most of whom are women, due to cost and time requirements;
  • dealing with bureaucracy and providing documentation and information when going through official channels is also time-consuming and requires education;
  • discriminating land use regulations negatively affect women’s income generating activities and their safety.
Certificates of Rights (CORs) were introduced [in Botswana] … to ‘provide the urban poor with secure [land tenure while avoiding involvement in the complexities and costs of title registration’. …Under the COR, the state retains the ultimate title ownership (…) while plot-holder rights are usufruct for the sole purpose of erecting an owner-occupied residential house. … Because of their relative poverty, most women opted for land under Certificate of Rights. Because of their rights are not registerable, most women cannot mortgage their rights to obtain loans from financial institutions (…). Worst still, they may not legally sub-let part of their units to raise funds. Kalabamu [1998].
In the specific case of Cameroon, discouraging home-based enterprises through policies that strive to segregate land use activities has meant for example, that women dealing in ready-to eat food must travel long distances to organized market places or other activity centres such as those offering formal employment in order to market their products. Njoh [1998].

5. Monitoring and Evaluating the Situation of Women

Having some measurement system for evaluating access to land is essential if the ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of a particular program, policy, or project is to be determined. There needs to be a set of indicators that can describe the situation before, during, and after something (e.g., a new law, a titling project) has occurred. Basically this is the same as a deformation survey of a dam – campaigns of measurements at discrete intervals of time to detect movement. The problem in measuring access to land is similar to the problem of determining which points on the dam are critical in detecting movement. These ‘points’ become indicators.

Measurement of access to land needs to involve both qualitative and quantitative parameters. Surveyors and other land administrators tend to think primarily of property rights to the surface of the land together with its fixed improvements. The focus becomes the quantity of rights (e.g., leasehold, freehold, easement), the size of the parcel of land, or its economic value. On the other hand, social anthropologists have tended to emphasize the uniqueness of land tenure systems within a given culture and focus on the nature or quality of the rights that may be involved. Both approaches are valid for certain purposes and both have their limitations. If, however, we are to design a way of measuring women’s access to land it may be important to draw on both approaches.

One way of examining the quantity of rights is to view the ‘bundle" of rights as a spectrum. At one end of the quantitative spectrum are temporary rights of use. At the other end is absolute control over what can be done with a particular resource, including who else can use the resource and for how long. Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum is the management of the resource where there is more limited decision making power (e.g., the ability to transfer rights and the opportunities to reap the direct and indirect profits from the resource). An English common law freehold estate then might be considered to be at the management level subject to the overall control of the state. A short term leasehold might be considered a temporary use right.

Examining the quality of the rights to determine indicators is more complex and only a few examples can be given here. One measure of quality is the legal security of the rights, i.e., how well do formal law (e.g., legislation) or informal law (e.g., traditional or local community rules) protect the ownership of the rights. Thus, for example, inheritance through entail or patrilineal inheritance rules may limit women’s right of management or control. Physical security is another indicator that may be affected, for example, by war or by custom in many countries where land is seized by the male relatives on death of a husband. A third example of quality of rights is transferability. Use rights may often be non-transferable because they are vested in a family or particular family members. Furthermore, transferability may be affected by the quality of the evidence of the right, such as an official document or register.

In assessing the quality and quantity of rights, the scope of potential rights of access must be broad. For this reason we have chosen the term "access to land and the benefits of land". Some of these direct and indirect benefits that should be considered in measuring access include:

  • rights to shelter;
  • rights to access water, firewood, fish, or fruit;
  • rights to shares in inheritance on the death of a family member;
  • rights to shares in land and improvements on the death or departure of a partner in an informal marriage;
  • rights of access to financing and financial inputs;
  • rights to the profits from the use or sale of the resource;
  • social status in the community based on access to land;
  • role in decision-making (e.g., management and control).

The next step for project managers, policy makers and others who want to know more about the quantity and quality of access to land, is what specific indicators might be used? These will be important in pre-project assessments and in later monitoring and post-project evaluation. Again only a few samples can be given here.

In many land administration projects and programs the conventional approach has been to use documents of land rights or land registry records. This has the advantage of being straight forward and reasonable objective but the limitations are many. Even in western countries title documents and registers only record a limited set of rights and the situation is made more complex in customary societies and less-developed nations where either:

  • few documents or registers exist;
  • they may not be up-to-date or complete;
  • they may not reflect the on-site situation;
  • they often only list one name (de jure head of household)
  • they probably do not reflect the variety of formal and informal rights that exist through custom and tradition.

A second major indicator used to measure access to land is legislation, such as laws for inheritance, divorce, or land use. This however may also be misleading since the formal legislation may not reflect what actually is accepted as practice on the ground. One example are the divorce laws in some socialist states which may recognize equal division of property. How well a woman’s (or man’s) rights might be protected on divorce, especially in impoverished rural regions, will also depend on the degree of access to the courts, ability to finance litigation, and the degree of support provided by the family or community. Similarly calls for equal rights in constitutions can be quite meaningless in the actual practice of local communities.

Other indicators include physical occupation or proof of the actual exercise of the rights. Again this has some difficulties in that it may not agree with the formal (legal) status and it may be difficult to observe (especially in a short time span) all of rights in play. Related to these indicators are indicators such as: de facto head of household; primary food provider; community acceptance or agreement of someone’s rights; or the share of financial and labour inputs. Even more difficult to measure objectively and completely are factors such as social status and decision-making power.

Tables 1 and 2 present more comprehensive lists of indicators that point to areas when gender disaggregated information might be collected and analyzed.

  • Rights granted by written laws;
  • Rights granted by other laws – customary, informal, secondary, temporary;
  • Security of the aforementioned rights;
  • Implementation and enforcement of rights intended to promote women’s equality;
  • Rights women are free to practice – with or without being granted to them (pressure from family members, religion, culture, etc.);
  • Women’s access to the court system (e.g., in comparison to men);
  • Women’s access to the local customary decision-making bodies and their theoretical and real roles in these bodies;
  • Social status in the community based on access to land;
  • Role in decision making;
  • Percentage of male and female population holding secure and insecure title to land;

Table 1. Indicators for collecting gender disaggregated information - Legislation and community rules


  • Origins of landholdings;
  • Inheritance systems;
  • Women’s participation in formal and informal land transactions (and the types of transactions);
  • Women’s participation in the housing and land markets (where and how often);
  • Bargaining power;
  • Resource allocation within the household;
  • Land use patterns – who uses it for what purpose;
  • Type of infrastructure female and male-headed households have access to;
  • Percentage of women’s landholdings of the total agricultural holdings;
  • Average size of holdings for men and women;
  • Income sources for men and women;
  • Percentage of population depending on agriculture for their livelihood;
  • Percentage of women depending on agriculture for their livelihood;
  • Percentage of population depending on home-based activities for their livelihood;
  • Percentage of women depending on home-based activities for their livelihood;
  • Size and characteristics of female owner occupied houses;
  • Female share of employment in the informal sector;
  • Women’s share in formal and informal agricultural labour;
  • Proportion of food produced directly by women;
  • Proportion of cash-crop produced by women;
  • Traditional land related responsibilities;
  • The number of female headed households – de facto and de jure;
  • Percentage of people living in rural and urban areas;
  • Percentage of women living in rural and urban areas;
  • Percentage of arable land, forest;
  • Proportion of individually and communally owned land;
  • Access to hired labor;
  • Access to creditworthy landparcel.


Table 2. Indicators for collecting gender disaggregated information - Socio-economic objectives

6. The Role of International, National and Non-Governmental Organizations in Promoting Equitable Gender Inclusion

International aid organizations have been targeting women for special assistance for decades. The protection and enhancement of women’s rights to land receives more and more attention in contemporary land reform and privatization projects. In order to assure that project outcomes reflect the initial goals and do not have unintended negative impacts on women, the donor community should take on the following responsibilities:

  • Ensure that mechanisms and institutions are in place for discussions, conflict resolution and negotiations regarding gender issues.
  • Advocate national policies requiring the revision of those national laws and policies that impose constraints on women’s land rights.
  • Identify areas in national and customary laws pertinent to women’s access to and benefits from land and encourage changes to protect women’s rights to land and its resources.
  • Form independent enforcement procedures and monitor its implementation.
  • Document violations of women’s rights to land.
  • Promote the involvement of women in policy- and decision making, aiming towards equal representation of men and women in these bodies.
  • Encourage nations to sign those international declarations that promote women’s equal status under the law and their equal access to productive resources.
  • Göler von Ravensburg and Jacobsen [1999] suggest that "Development cooperation can make it a precondition for any intensification of policy dialogue that international principles and law regarding women’s land rights be included into national policy and law, make relevant suggestions in this regard and monitor whether the respective laws are implemented such that men and women indeed obtain equal status in all land matters."
  • Collect gender disaggregated data and make them available for the research community, practitioners, and the public.
  • Urge constitutional recognition of women's rights: such provisions provide a strong basis for subsequent legislative initiatives or court interpretations;
  • Assist in the development of modern property laws that recognize the diversity of family and household arrangements, and acknowledges both modern and traditionally dominant household patterns.
  • International donor agencies should pledge that gender perspective will be fully integrated in all future projects and programmes, as it is required by for example the UNCHS: "… all terms of reference, programme structures and activities are defined, designed and developed from a gender perspective."
  • Ensure the participation of women in community and family decisions about land access and management; in local and national government structures affecting land allocation and land policy implementation; and in customary or statutory tribunals that address uncertainties and disputes with respect to land.

7. With the Help of the Surveying Community – Recommended Guidelines for Surveyors in Land Administration Projects and Agencies

The surveying community should not underestimate its role in allocating, adjudicating, protecting, and changing the way in which people hold rights to land. In the past the major impact was the size and shape of land parcels and the general pattern of the parcel fabric. Today, surveyors also have a role in land reform and promoting security of tenure in ensuring that the cadastral systems, laws, and procedures put in place during such reform do not adversely affect the rights of groups and individuals that the reforms were meant to benefit.

Learning more on how to approach the gender dimension of such programmes and projects and acquiring the tools necessary to address them are vital for securing a more equitable outcome. The following section discusses some of the measures that should be considered by practitioners working in development of human settlements in both rural and urban environments. The authors are aware that it may not be possible or practical to exhaust all of these measures during a project cycle. Also, collecting gender disaggregated data as well as general information on women and minorities often prove to be a serious challenge. Recently however, there has been a significant, although far from sufficient, increase in the number of sources offering applicable data and information.

Although the special focus of this report is on rural development, most recommendations are also applicable in urban development projects.

7.1 Land administration procedures should accommodate all segments of the population
  • Recognize women as stakeholders. Zwarteveen [1997] emphasizes the importance of women's informed participation when individuals' access to water and land is determined. Their active participation throughout the program - from research to implementation and post project evaluation - is key if their interest is to be taken into account. This participation also has to be in a meaningful way. They have to be informed of their rights and a support system has to be in place to help them defend those rights.
  • Ensure women's ACTIVE participation in the processes. This includes ensuring that women in the community affected and on staff are involved in the project or policy processes, not as an afterthought, but from planning, to implementation, and to evaluation of the results. This is not always an easy process and sensitive ways must be found in some communities to allow women to share their views and experiences openly, especially with strangers. Another way in which women in the community or organization can be encouraged to participate is to provide role models, such as appointing women as key project members and supporting them.
  • Obtain knowledge of the local situation. For project managers to know whether women's access to land may be an issue, there is a need for an adequate pre-project assessment of the situation. The level of detail and complexity will depend on the local situation and the objectives of the project. However, if the situation does appear to have issues directly related to women's rights, then special measures may have to be taken to understand the potential implications of the project. This can be assisted by monitoring changes during the project and by obtaining feedback from women as well as male community leaders before and during the project. Post-project evaluation (the role of which is too often disregarded or minimized) is also important for understanding what worked and what did not and what were the lessons learned.
  • Provide opportunities for women's rights to be explicitly recognized. If a land titling, cadastral surveying, land registration, or information system project is going to document rights to land, then decisions need to be made as to: what rights will be included? whose names will be documented and based on what evidence? and how will these names be kept up to date? In addition there is a need for the decisions made on these issues to be acceptable to the recipient community to ensure the sustainability of the systems introduced.
  • Safeguard and enforce women's rights. Pottier [1999] and others suggest that women often lose access to certain resources when those become profitable or receive more attention.
  • Add the spouse's or partner's name to all legal documents concerning land rights, including any official register of land rights. For transactions involving family holdings, consent should be given by the spouse or partner. This helps to prevent fraud, adds security for the woman beyond family or legislative recognition (e.g., matrimonial laws), and helps to ensure that both partners understand what their rights are.
  • Propose alternative ownership models. There are instances where combining individual, common, public or group ownership may provide a better solution for women or groups of women to secure or extend their existing rights. Under customary regimes women have use rights to their male relatives land. During privatization programmes they can easily lose these rights if the land is titled under the name of the male relative without giving consideration to women's overlapping use rights. Identify joint ownership interests during registration where applicable.
  • Establish land administration institutions that are responsive and accommodating to women as well as men. Efficient, decentralized land administration agencies are better able to serve the community. Participatory methodologies and decision-making structures can provide opportunities for inclusion.
  • Simplify registration procedures. Women, especially poor women and female heads of households are often unable to comply with excessive documentation requirements. They are also unlikely to represent their interests effectively and in a timely manner required in procedures designed with a bias toward the more affluent segments of society.
  • Support women in land administration organizations. In major internationally funded projects, women employees often do not have the same access to opportunities on the project. Yet these women may be able to help foreign project members and recipient organization staff to better understand the issues related to women's access to land locally. They may also be a communication bridge to the community's women. Projects can also enhance women's sustained participation in a land project through education and training. The Swedish International Development Agency, for example, has required that 50% of all participants in cadastral training and education projects abroad be women.
  • Consider that women have limited access to financial resources. Any procedures requiring financial compensation should be carefully examined not to present an additional burden for women and exclude them from the benefits of the project. Where financial support is available to subsidize administrative costs, women with insufficient means should receive priority during fund distribution.
  • Ensure effective access through other support. Providing equity is not enough. To be effective, access to land must also include access to other resources (such as financing, technology, and training) and to required support systems (e.g., water, roads, marketing co-operatives). Without these resources and support, the projects may leave nothing but paper titles behind.
  • Share awareness of the issues and their complexity. Just being aware that there may be some potential issues is a long step forward. This will help project managers, task managers, and other participants in policy formation or project design understand that they need to be sensitive to potential impacts. Awareness of the complications in what may have seemed to be a straight forward surveying project, may help professionals decide whether or not people with specialized expertise may be necessary. It is also important that surveyors share this awareness with their staff and others involved in the projects.
  • Document lessons learned and best practices. Obtaining relevant and reliable information regarding the situation of women is often difficult. For that reason, sharing information and experiences within the surveying community has enormous significance.
7.2 Removing barriers to access to information
  • Disseminate information in a way that is comprehensible by women. It should be taken into consideration that the illiteracy rate is much higher among women than men. Adoption of training and advisory materials for the non-literate population is essential. Employ those forms of media that reach women in rural areas and in poorer districts of cities.
  • Explain the rights and obligations associated with holding title to land. Women should feel comfortable about being title holders. They should understand the rights, responsibilities and opportunities granting title to land carries and the potential changes and consequences this may bring in terms of their status (i.e. fees to be paid during transaction, possible tension with male relatives, etc.)
  • Discuss the meanings of land administration terms with women. For instance, women's understanding of the term security of tenure or ownership can be greatly different from what men think. This should be within a non-threatening environment where women are not afraid to ask questions.
  • Consult those women directly who will be affected by the program outcomes. More and more accurate information can be gathered as to the priorities and interests of women when they are asked directly.
  • Ensure that there is a two-way communication mechanism in place between women and surveyors. Women's experience and knowledge should be part of the initial community assessment. Facts pertinent to the project should be communicated to women by development professionals and women must have opportunity to voice their concerns without being intimidated. Religious and customary laws governing the interactions between women and "outsiders" must be understood before the project, be adhered to, and worked around (e.g., by employing women to conduct the interaction).
  • Include women among surveying professionals working with local communities. Female professionals might be able to establish connection with women's groups in communities where religious or cultural customs prohibit social contact between the sexes or when women are not allowed to speak publicly in the presence of their husbands. It is however equally important that female professionals responsible for these tasks have a good understanding of the gender dimensions of the project, the local situation and are willing and able to undertake these assignments.
  • Support women's membership in land management bodies at all levels: from national to local levels and also in formal as well as in informal bodies.
7.3 Increasing awareness about the obstacles hindering women’s participation
  • Be aware of women's daily schedules. Plan meetings and information sessions during that part of the day when women are able to attend. Accommodate women's request in terms of timing and location. Women are seldom able to visit geographically remote areas for the purpose of attending meetings.
  • Analyze decision-making patterns within domestic units. It is often the male head of the domestic unit who is viewed as the decision maker and it may be so. Research has shown that the male decision maker does not necessarily represent the interest of the women and children in the domestic unit. Receiving independent input from women is essential when a project may affect their well-being.
  • Recognize the different needs of different women. All women are not equal. Women who are economically in a better position have different interests than poor women, and their participation and input do not replace poor women's participation and input. Instead, it represents another segment. Special attention need to be given to the situation of divorcees, female heads of households and widows.
7.4 Working with the local customary community
  • Identify rural institutions in charge of the implementation of customary rules. One of the important elements in the project or programme may be an interdisciplinary approach. Surveyors are not sociologists or anthropologist, nor micro finance experts. Part of any successful project is knowing when to bring in the experts.
  • Oversee the legitimacy of women's land claims. Women's access to resources can only be sustainable if it is viewed by the community - both men and women - as legitimate. Projects should strive to allocate resources equitably and strive to ensure acceptance by the members of the community.
  • Investigate what rights - in what areas (inheritance, divorce, property rights, family law etc.) are upheld in the event of controversy between written and customary laws. Once again experts (lawyers and others) can provide project managers with a better understanding of the issues, the status of the law, and any contradictions.
  • Acknowledge when there is a problem regarding women's unequal access to land and associated resources. Women's lack of access or insecure access to housing and productive resources are not always transparent and customary tenure systems vary from place to place and even in time as the social and economic fabric of rural communities are subject to transformation and modernization. Bringing the issue to the attention of appropriate authorities may not always be popular but may be considered part of a surveyor's code of ethics.

8. Conclusions

Providing secure and effective access to land for women can benefit families, communities, and nations through, for example:

  • increased economic opportunities;
  • increased investment in land and food production;
  • improved family security during economic and social transitions; and
  • better land stewardship.

However, these benefits can only be fully realised if the strategies adopted for improving women's access to land work in practice and if decision-makers and project teams are aware of those strategies that do and do not work. They need to know about the quality and distribution of rights in land, the economic and cultural impediments that limit women's effective and secure access to land, and the benefits that can be achieved by enhancing women's access. They also need to know what options for improving equitable access to land exist and be able to evaluate the full range of implications of these options.

Surveyors have an impact on land tenure systems worldwide. This implies that the profession also has a special responsibility to society. As the land tenure issues grow increasingly complex and become more diverse, the profession has a responsibility to know more about the issues and to do more to ensure that the systems for administering property rights serve all societies well.


Agarwal, B. [1995]. A Field of One’s Own: Gender and Property in South Asia. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom.

Ayad, M., A.L. Piani, B. Barrere, K. Ekouevi, and J. Otto [1994]. "Demographic Characteristics of Households". DHS Comparative Studies No. 14. Calverton, Maryland: Macro International Inc. pp. 25-31.

Crowley, E. [1998]. "Women’s right to land and natural resources: Some implications for a human-rights based approach." Workshop on "Rights-based Approach to Women’s Empowerment and Advancement and Gender Equality." Rome, Italy.

Davison, J. ed. [1988]. Agriculture, Women and Land: The African Experience. Westview Press, Boulder.

Ericsson, A. [1999]. "Women’s access to land." Survey Quarterly, No. 20. pp.11-15.

FAO [1999]. "Participation and Information – The Key to Gender-Responsive Agricultural Policy." [1999] Prepared by the Women and Population Division Sustainable Development Department, FAO for the UN High Level Consultation on Rural Women and Information 4-6 October 1999 FAO, Rome Http:// Accessed on 24 October 2000.

FAO [1999]. "A Technical Background Paper on Gender Issues in Land Tenure" Paper prepared by the Sustainable Development Department, FAO for the UN High Level Consultation on Rural Women and Information, Rome 4-6 October 1999. Http:// Accessed on 24 October 2000.

FAO [1997]. "Gender: the key to sustainability and food security." FAO Sustainable

Development Division, Rome, Italy Http:// Accessed on 24 October 2000.

Fortmann, L. [1998]. "Why women’s property rights matter." International Conference and Workshop on Land Tenure in the Developing World. Cape Town, South Africa.

Giovarelli, R. [nd]. "Women’s access to land in the Kyrgyz Republic. Women’s land rights in the changing legal and economic environment of a Former Soviet Republic. Http:// 4421fae238d4c8e9852567ec005a0162/$FILE/kyrwomen.pdf Accessed on 1 November 2000.

Göler von Ravensburg, N. and I. Jacobsen [1999]. "Gender responsive land tenure development." Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) Gmbh.

Harden, B. [1990]. "Good Intentions." Chapter 5 in Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Johnson-Welch, C. [2000]. Gender and Household Food Security: A Lost Opportunity. International Food and Nutrition Conference 2000. Tuskegee University, October 8-10. Http:// Accessed on 9 February 2000.

Kalabamu, F. [1998]. "Effects of gendered land rights on urban housing by women in Botswana." International Conference and Workshop on Land Tenure in the Developing World. Cape Town, South Africa.

Komjathy, K. [1999]. "Women’s access to benefits from land and natural resources. A bibliography." Land Tenure Service, FAO, Rome.

Lastarria-Cornhiel, S. [1997]. "Impact of privatization on gender and property rights in Africa." World Development, Vol. 25. No. 8. Pp.1317-1333.

Mearns, R. and S. Sinha [1999]. "Social exclusion and land administration in Orissa, India. "Policy Research Working Papers, World Bank, Washington, DC. Http://

Nichols, S. E. [1993]. Land Registration: Managing Information for Land Administration. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Surveying Engineering Technical Report No. 168, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, 340 pp.

Nichols, S., E. Crowley and K. Komjathy [1999]. "Women’s access to land: Surveyors can make a difference." Survey Quarterly, No. 20. Pp. 16-19.

Njoh, A. J. [1998]. "Urban planning, housing and the socio-economic development of women in a developing country." Planning Perspectives, Vol. 13, pp. 1-21.

Pottier, J. [1999]. "Food Security and Gender: Information Gaps and How to Plug Them." FAO High Level Consultation on Rural Women and Information, FAO, Rome. Accessed: 24 October 2000.

Quisumbing, A., E. Payongayong, J.B. Aidoo, and K. Otsuka, [1998]. "Women’s land rights in the transition to individualized ownership: Implications for tree resource management in Western Ghana." International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC.

Rocheleau, D. and D. Edmunds [1997]. "Women, men and trees: Gender, power and property in forest and agrarian landscapes." World Development, Vol. 25. No. 8. pp.1351-1371.

Seager, J. [1997]. "The state of the women in the world atlas." Penguin, London.

Sida and UN Habitat [1995]. Proceedings of the International Workshop on Women’s Access, Control, and Tenure of Land, Property, and Settlement. Preparation for Habitat 2, Swedesurvey: Gavle, Sweden.

The Economist [2001]. "Helping the dirt-poor." February 10-16, at p. 50.

Tinker, I. and G. Summerfield (eds.) [1999]. Women’s rights to house and land: China, Laos, Vietnam. Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, CO.

The United Nations [1995]. The Fourth World Conference on Women: Action for Equality, Development and Peace, Beijing, 4-15 September 1995.

UN Habitat [1999]. "Women’s rights to land, housing and property in post-conflict situations and during reconstruction: A global overview." Land Management Series No. 9. United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat). Nairobi.

Van Koppen, B. [1998]. More Jobs Per Drop: Targeting Irrigation to Poor Women and Men. Royal Tropical Institute, Amsterdam.

Varley, A. [2000]. "De lo privado, a lo público: género, ilegalidad y legalización de la tenencia de la tierra urbana" Estudios demográficos e urbanos 44, 15, 2.

Varley, A. and M. Blasco [2000]. "Gender and Property in Mexico’s colonias populares." Paper presented at the session on ‘Gender and Property in Latin America’ at the XXX International Congress of the Latin American Studies Association, Miami, 16-18 March 2000.

World Bank [nd]. "Toolkit on gender in agriculture." Gendernet, World Bank Accessed on 24 October 2000.

World Neighbours [2000]. "Gender and Decision Making: Kenya Case Study." World Neighbours, Nairobi.

Zwarteveen, M. Z. [1997]. "Water: From basic need to commodity: A discussion on gender and water rights in the context of irrigation." World Development, Vol. 25. No. 8, pp.1335-1349.


Women's Access to Land - FIG Guidelines
Principles for Equitable Gender Inclusion in Land Administration:
Background Report and Guidelines

Published in English

Published by The International Federation of Surveyors (FIG)
ISBN: 87-90907-08-6, May 2001, Frederiksberg, Denmark

Printed copies can be ordered from:
FIG Office, Kalvebod Brygge 31-33, DK-1780 Copenhagen V, DENMARK,
Tel: + 45 38 86 10 81, E-mail: