ICRW Launches Innovative Women’s Land Rights Project in Vietnam

Article Date

18 December 2014

Article Author

By Gillian Gaynair

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Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), along with the Institute for Social Development Studies (ISDS), has just launched a first-of-its-kind project in Vietnam that is setting up and training teams of grassroots legal advisors to help farmers, particularly women farmers, realize their land rights. 

Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the two-year pilot effort, called Land Access for Women, aims to empower women to exercise their rights in rural areas of Hung Yen in the North and Long An in the South, two provinces that are home to a number of ethnic minorities. In addition to training legal advisors – known in Vietnam as “community volunteers for gender equality” –  researchers will work to better understand and document the gender-specific barriers to realizing land rights in rural areas as well as increase the ability of local organizations to advocate for gender-equitable reform.

The “Paralegal” Approach

The project builds upon lessons learned through a successful five-year ICRW program in Uganda that also trained community volunteers to act as legal advisors, known there as “paralegals”, on women’s property rights and land dispute techniques. Although adapted to the Vietnamese context, whose culture, history and policies differ greatly from those of Uganda, the approach is somewhat similar.   

In Vietnam, ICRW and ISDS will help train 60 volunteers from four communes, administrative bodies comprised of several villages. The volunteers will then carry out a variety of activities to educate communities about land rights as well as provide legal counseling to individuals, mitigate land disputes and advise families on how to navigate legal structures. Meanwhile, a network of “mass organizations” – which resemble civil society organizations, but with links to Vietnam’s communist party – will lead activities to advocate for more effective integration of gender into the content and execution of current land laws and future reforms.

The community volunteer approach has been a powerful one, greatly improving women’s access to justice. ICRW’s research in Uganda shows that paralegals were deemed more approachable than formal authorities in resolving property issues by rural people and women in particular. ICRW also found that they were effective: their services are free of charge, and they are able to resolve matters quickly, be flexible in their ability to meet with clients and remain neutral in land matters.

ICRW and ISDS experts will spend the next few months assessing people’s knowledge of land rights and perceptions about gender equality in the four communes as well as determine what kind of barriers women may face in terms of accessing land. Then in early 2015, community volunteers selected from civil society and mass organizations will be trained on land rights, women’s rights and monitoring and evaluation techniques.

“What makes our work in Vietnam interesting is that the country actually has a fairly progressive land rights policy,” said Dr. Gina Alvarado, ICRW gender and evaluation specialist and project director for Land Access for Women. “However, although this policy includes language about including women, most property disputes still take place at the commune level, and there is resistance from rural families who are wedded to long-held customs.”

Revolutionary land reforms

Indeed, radical reforms in the 1990s resulted in significant legislative and public policy changes around land rights, which contributed to Vietnam’s rapid economic growth. The 1993 Land Law created a land market and prompted a sweeping land redistribution program; within seven years, 11 million Land Use Rights Certificates (LURCs) were issued to rural households. Although this law was intended to be gender neutral, more men benefited and received a larger portion of the LURCs. The 2003 Land Law corrected some of the gender inequalities by requiring LURCs to record the names of both spouses, as opposed to only the head of the household.

“Still, we have evidence showing that provincial authorities who decide on land allocation and distribution may be influenced by customary practices that reinforce gender inequalities,” Alvarado said. “So violations of women’s land use rights persist.”

What’s more, some areas of the two provinces where the project is taking have become centers of conflict – particularly as they have grown more industrialized since Vietnam’s market-oriented reforms of the 1990s. These conflicts involve farmers, local authorities and private sector companies engaged in buying and confiscating land from poor, rural families. Tensions also exist within households over land rights and use.

“We want to identify what happens with poor households in general,” Alvarado said. “Whatever barriers women are facing are going to be bigger if they’re in the context of a whole market being created that is increasing the difficulties for the poor in general.”

Although many challenges remain, Khuat Thu Hong, co-director of ISDS and manager of the Land Access for Women project in Vietnam is optimistic that change is possible.

“Local authorities in both provinces have welcomed us to work in their communes,” Hong said. “We hope our work will contribute to better awareness and protection of women’s land rights and improve law implementation in general.” 

Gillian Gaynair is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and editor.