Women’s right to own property and assets is as much about power dynamics between women and men as legal rights, according to new findings released by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW). The results emerge from the Gender, Land and Asset Survey or GLAS, an innovative study that aims to understand the current state of women’s asset ownership and control.
The survey, piloted by ICRW and its partners, University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and Associates Research Uganda Ltd., is one of the first to undertake a quantitative assessment of men’s and women’s rights over a range of assets from land and housing to material goods such as mobile phones and farming tools. ICRW’s Krista Jacobs and Meredith Saggers shared the results at a seminar held June 23 in Washington, D.C. (see the presentation).
The findings are an important addition to the international development field, where asset and property rights for women are increasingly seen as key to economic progress. However, women continue to own just a fraction of land worldwide, and despite laws that protect their rights to property, men and women often are unaware of them. Meanwhile, prevailing social norms reinforce attitudes that discourage women from owning land or other assets.
ICRW aimed to gain a better understanding of the issue through GLAS as well as another property rights-related project in Uganda: A community-based program in the rural Luwero District that educated people on existing laws and helped mediate property disputes. ICRW and its local partners, Uganda Land Alliance (ULA) and Centre for Basic Research, trained rights workers and their communities on women’s legal rights to property and promoted discussion around how these rights were or were not realized. The nine-month pilot showed modest achievements.
As for GLAS, researchers conducted the survey in three rural and urban sites in Uganda and South Africa, to provide a multidimensional look at the gap between men’s and women’s asset ownership. The findings confirmed that men own more than women and also control more decisions about assets. More so, women’s ability to own assets is strongly influenced by their male partners.
Among married or cohabiting couples, responses about joint ownership revealed differing perceptions between men and women. For example, in rural Uganda, 19 percent of women said they jointly owned a house with the male head of household, while only 3 percent of men reported shared ownership.
When female respondents were divided into two groups, female-headed households and women in male-headed households, results showed that asset ownership among women heads was comparable to their male counterparts. In rural South Africa, 86 percent of men and 84 percent of women who lead households owned a home. In contrast, only 22 percent of women in male-headed households reported such ownership. Researchers cautioned that although women who head households appeared to own assets, the survey sample may have only captured more resilient women. Still, the findings point to the need for further understanding on how gender norms affect women’s ability to own and make decisions about various assets.
“Women’s asset rights are largely shaped by their position in the household and by their relationships,” said Jacobs, who led the research. “These power structures should be top of mind when shaping policies and programs about land, economic development and women’s empowerment.”
The Gender, Asset and Land Survey instrument and manual will be available online in late July 2011. Join our e-newsletter to receive regular updates from ICRW.