Front Cover
 Title Page
 Why land is important for...
 Women's land access in practic...
 Obstacles to women's land...
 What should be done?
 Collective action
 Back Cover

Group Title: Seeds
Title: Are we not peasants too?
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00088791/00001
 Material Information
Title: Are we not peasants too? land rights and women's claims in India
Series Title: Seeds
Physical Description: 30 p. : ill. ; 26 cm.
Language: English
Creator: Agarwal, Bina
Publisher: Population Council
Place of Publication: New York
Publication Date: 2002
Subject: Land tenure -- India   ( lcsh )
Land reform -- India   ( lcsh )
Right of property -- India   ( lcsh )
Women's rights -- India   ( lcsh )
Rural women -- India   ( lcsh )
Mujeres en la agricultura
Tenencia de la tierra -- India
Femmes en agriculture -- Inde   ( rvm )
Propriété foncière -- Inde   ( rvm )
Femmes et planification de l'utilisation du sol -- Inde   ( rvm )
Genre: bibliography   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )
Spatial Coverage: India
Bibliography: Includes bibliographical references (p. 29).
Statement of Responsibility: by Bina Agarwal.
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: UF00088791
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier: oclc - 51796696

Table of Contents
    Front Cover
        Front Cover
    Title Page
        Title Page 1
        Title Page 2
        Page 1
        Page 2
        Page 3
    Why land is important for women
        Page 4
        Page 5
        Page 6
        Page 7
        Page 8
    Women's land access in practice
        Page 9
        Page 10
        Page 11
        Page 12
        Page 13
    Obstacles to women's land access
        Page 14
        Page 15
        Page 16
        Page 17
    What should be done?
        Page 18
        Page 19
        Page 20
        Page 21
        Page 22
        Page 23
        Page 24
    Collective action
        Page 25
        Page 26
        Page 27
        Page 28
        Page 29
    Back Cover
        Page 30
Full Text

b ia Agarw S


-... Fi! I

i 1.1

Bina Agarwal is Professor of Economics at the
Institute of Economic Growth, University of DE iii and
author of the award-winning book A Field of One's
Owni: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia. Her
work has had national and international impact, within
both academic and policy circles, on the neglected
issue of women's rights in property, especially land.



is a pam-
phlet series
to meet re-
quests from all over the world for infor-
mation about innovative and practical
program ideas developed to address the
economic roles and needs of low-income
women. The pamphlets are designed as a
means to share information and spark
new initiatives based on the positive
experiences of projects that are working
to help women generate livelihoods and
to improve their economic status. The
projects described in this and other
issues of SEEDS have been selected be-
cause they have served not only to
strengthen women's productive roles,
but also to integrate women into various
sectors of development, both social and
economic. All projects documented in

the SEEDS series involve women in deci-
sionmaking, organize women locally, and
address broader policy issues that affect
the economic roles of women.
These reports are not meant to be pre-
scriptive, since every development effort
will face somewhat different problems
and possibilities. Rather, they have been
written to describe the history of an idea
and its implementation in the hope that
the lessons learned can be useful in a
variety of settings. They are also being
written to bring to the attention of those
in decisionmaking positions the vital
roles that women play not only in the
economies of their individual households
but also in the economic life of every
This edition of SEEDS is made possi-
ble by support of the Ford Foundation,
the Rockefeller Foundation, and the
Population Council.

d Population Council

The Population Council is an international, nonprofit, nongovernmental institution that
seeks to improve the well-being and reproductive health of current and future generations
around the world and to help achieve a humane, equitable, and sustainable balance between
people and resources. The Council conducts biomedical, social science, and public health
research and helps build research capacities in developing countries. Established in 1952,
the Council is governed by an international board of trustees. Its New York headquarters
supports a global network of regional and country offices.

Population Council, One Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, New York, New York 10017 USA
tel: (212) 339-0500, fax: (212) 755-6052, e-mail: pubinfo@popcouncil.org

Statements made and views expressed in this publication are solely the responsibility of the
author and not of any organization providing support for SEEDS. Any part of this document
may be reproduced without permission of the author so long as it is not sold for profit.

Number 21, 2002 ISSN: 073-6833

Copyright 2002 The Population Council, Inc.

SEEDS is pleased to publish our twenty-
first issue, Professor Bina. 11 Il's Are
We Not Poas(ruts Too.', exploring the
critical elements in securing effective
and independent land rights for women.
Although the author's primary focus is
South Asia, the analytical framework and
proposed action plan are of relevance to
Latin America, Africa, the ( iId,, iw,
and eastern Europe-indeed wherever
women's use and control of arable land
are crucial to their economic well-being
and livelihoods. SEEDS issues 10, 14, and
16 provide readers with additional back-
ground to several topics discussed here,
with particular reference to Nepal, Zambia,
and India.
Are We Not Peasants T7o? documents
the substantial and enduring barriers and
biases obstructing efforts to strengthen
women's relationship to the resource-
- I i i. asset of land. Despite the cen-
trality of this issue to reducing rural
women's poverty and improving their
economic status, the author shows why
women's independent claims to land
have been difficult to achieve, even

where progressive social movements
and legal reforms have recognized them,
such as in India.
To tackle such obstacles, Professor
Agarwal presents a range of cooperative
strategies for enabling women to retain
and cultivate the land and shows how
micro-credit and other programs can be
redirected to increase the amount and
productivity of land women control.
Recognizing that new policies and politi-
cal- ill are required to foster and sustain
such experiments, the author ends with
a summary of how women are organizing
to place women's access to land at the
center of national and global agendas.
In this spirit, '.i. li )S hopes that Are
We Not Peasants Too? will inspire grass-
roots women's groups, NGOs, innovative
donors, policymakers, and others from
around the world to share examples of
how they have established strategies that
increase women's access to this crucial
asset. Let us hear from you!

Sandy Schilen, SEEDS Editor

Are Wet Not Peasan. T:: ?

a.anrif Rih': and 1'eso e I. s

in India

by Bina Agarwal

1 -.!t od' _f; r *-in

In 1979, over two decades ago, a group
of poor women from West Bengal made
the following demand of their elected vil-
lage council: "Please go and ask the gov-
ernment why, when it distributes land, we
don't get a title. Are we not peasants? If
my husband throws me out, what is my
security?" (personal communication, Vina
Mazumdar, 1992). This demand under-
lined these women's clear recognition
that their families alone could not guar-
antee them economic security. What they
also needed were fields of their own.

.2, "- '. acted Issue
In largely agrarian economies, arable land
is the most valued form of property and
productive resource. It is a wealth-creat-
ing and livelihood-sustaining asset. For a
significant majority of rural households it
is the single most important source of
security against poverty. Traditionally, it
has been the basis of political power and
social status. For many, it provides a sense
of identity and rootedness. It is an asset
that has a permanence that few other
assets possess. In some communities,
ancestral land also symbolically stands
for continuity of kinship and citizenship.
While many of these links are well rec-
ognized at the household level, their im-
portance specifically for women has re-
ceived little attention. Indeed, the issue
of women's rights in land (and more gen-
erally in property) has been, until recent-
ly, largely neglected in both research and
policy. In fact, in almost all developing

countries, large-scale surveys and agri-
cultural censuses collect property-relat-
ed information only by households, with-
out disaggregating by gender. Nepal is a
recent exception where such data will
now be collected in its census. In most of
South Asia, including India, therefore,
we still have to depend on small-scale
surveys and village studies to assess
women's access to land. These sources
reveal that typically few women own
arable land and even fewer effectively
control some.
The social and economic implications
of this are wide-ranging. Millions of
women in Asia, Africa, and Latin America
depend critically on land for a livelihood.
The typical process of agrarian transfor-
mation under which labor shifts from
agriculture to nonagriculture has been
slow and gender-biased. In many coun-
tries, those who have moved to nonfarm
work are largely men, while women have
remained substantially in agriculture.
Hence a disproportionate number of
those still dependent on land are wom-
en. In India, for instance, 58 percent of
all male workers but 78 percent of all
female workers, and 86 percent of all
rural female workers, are in agriculture.
Indeed the gender gap has been grow-
ing. Women's domestic work burden,
lower mobility, lesser education, and
fewer investable assets limit their entry
into nonagriculture, and also their range
of nonfarm options. Moreover, the na-
ture of women's agricultural work is, to a

greater extent than for men, casual in
nature. Relative to men, women also con-
tinue to have lower real wage rates and
lower average real wage earnings in both
agriculture and nonagriculture.
As more men shift to urban or rural
nonfarm livelihoods, a growing number
of households will become dependent on
women managing farms and bearing the
major burden of family subsistence. The
percentage of de facto female-headed
households is already large and ,i '.1. I' -
Estimates for India range from 20 to 35
percent. These include not just widows
and deserted and separated women, but
also women in households where the
men have migrated out and women are
effectively farming the land. These wom-
en will shoulder (and many are ,Ill I,1
shouldering) growing responsibilities in
agricultural production but will be con-
strained seriously by their lack of land
Moreover, the male biases in land
ownership and transfers that have been
noted in many developing countries are
in danger of being replicated in new land
reform initiatives and property rights
formulations. For instance, agrarian
reform is a major policy issue in post-
apartheid South Africa; and new private
property rights in land and other assets
are now being constituted in Eastern
Europe and the former USSR. Here new
gender inequalities are already being
created (Meer 1997; Verdery 1996).
It is therefore timely and essential to
examine in more detail why it is impor-
tant for women to have effective and
independent land rights, what obstructs
their realizing their claims, and what
could be done to improve the situation.
While these issues are discussed here
largely in the Indian or the South Asian
context, many are also relevant to other
developing regions and to the transition
economies. And although the focus here
is on arable land, since that is such a cru-
cial form of property and means of liveli-

hood in South Asia, many of the argu-
ments and concerns could be extended
to cover women's rights in a dwelling
house or in other forms of property.

Rights (in any form of property) are de-
fined here as claims that are legally and
socially recognized and enforceable by
an external legitimized authority, be it a
village-level institution or some higher-
level body of the State. Land rights can
stem from inheritance, transfers from the
State, tenancy arrangements, land pur-
chase, and so on. They can be in the form
of ownership or usufruct (rights of use),
and can encompass differing degrees of
freedom to lease out, mortgage, bequeath,
or sell.
Three additional distinctions are rele-
vant here. First, there is a difference
between the legal recognition of a claim
and its social recognition, and between
recognition and enforcement. A woman
may have a legal right to inherit proper-
ty, but this may remain merely on paper
if the claim is not recognized as socially
legitimate or if the law is not enforced.
Second, there is a distinction between
ownership and effective control. It is
sometimes assumed ii,.. n, 1-. that
legal ownership carries with it the right
of control in all its senses. In fact, legal
ownership may be accompanied by
restrictions on disposal, as among the
Jaffna Tamils of Sri Lanka and several
communities in Latin America, where a
married woman needs her husband's
consent to alienate the land she legally
owns. Third, we need to distinguish
between rights vested in individuals and
those vested in groups.
Our concern here is with women hav-
ing ir. ..-., and independent rights in
land, effective rights being rights not
just in law but also in practice; and inde-
pendent rights being rights that women
enjoy in their own capacity and indepen-
dent of those enjoyed by men.

W hy Land Is Important
for Women
My bangles are broken,
my days of shame are gone.
I have one small son, one calf onefield.
A calf to feed, a son to nurture
but the field, baiji [sister] this half
acre of earth
to feed me, to rest my head.
-Malli, a Rajasthani widow
(author's interviews, 1987)
Effective and independent land rights
for women are important on at least four
counts: welfare, efficiency, equality, and

VVI ta 1-
It is well accepted that land access can
notably reduce a household's risk of pov-
erty, but for several reasons land solely
in men's hands need not guarantee fe-
male welfare.
First, there are persistent gender in-
equalities and a bias favoring males in
the distribution of resources within house-
holds, including allocations for basic nec-
essities such as health care, education,
and, in some regions, even food. Biases
in food and health care are revealed es-
pecially in anthropometric measures (e.g.,

weight and height for age, weight for
height, etc.), morbidity rates, and most
starkly in female-adverse sex ratios.
In contrast, direct land transfers to
women are likely to benefit not just wom-
en but also children. Evidence both from
India and from many other parts of the
world shows that women, especially in
poor households, spend most of the
earnings they control on basic household
needs, while men spend a significant
part of theirs on personal goods, such as
alcohol, tobacco, etc. (Dwyer and Bruce
1988). This, in turn, affects child wel-
fare. Children in rural India are found
more likely to attend school and receive
medical attention if the mother has more
assets (Duraisamy 1992). Among mar-
ginal farmer households in Kerala (south
India), the mother's cultivation of a home
garden (the output of which she con-
trolled) was found to have a consistent-
ly high positive effect on child nutrition
(Kumar 1978). In urban Brazil, the effect
on child survival probabilities was found
to be several times greater when asset
income accrued to the mother, compared
with when it accrued to the father, and
the positive effect on the health of daugh-
ters was especially high (Thomas 1990).
Apart from differences in spending pat-

terns, women with assets such as land
have greater bargaining power, which can
lead to more gender-equal allocations of
benefits even from male incomes. In
short, women's and children's risk of
poverty would be reduced and their wel-
fare enhanced if women had direct ac-
cess to land, and not just access mediat-
ed through male family members.
Second, women without independent
resources are highly vulnerable to pover-
ty and destitution in case of desertion,
divorce, or widowhood. In parts of west-
ern and northwestern India, not uncom-
monly, rural women even from rich par-
ental and marital families, deprived of
their property shares when widowed,
can be found working as agricultural
laborers on the farms of their well-off
brothers or brothers-in-law. The fate of
deserted and divorced women is worse.
Relatives, including sons and broth-
ers, often do not provide the expected
economic security to women who are
widowed or whose marriages break down.
Many of them end up living on their own.
In fact, r,,- r. lill risks among widows
tend to be higher among those living as
dependents of male relatives compared
with those who are heads of households,
and who presumably have some inde-
pendent means of subsistence (Rahman
and Menken 1990). Indeed, for widows
and the elderly entitlement to fiiil-
care can depend critically on whether
they have property to bequeath. As the
elderly often say: "Without property
children don't look after their parents
well" ( .1.r.. 1et al. I1 .-. 191).
Land can provide women both direct
and indirect benefits. Direct advantages
can stem from growing not just crops,
but trees, a vegetable garden, or grass
for cattle. Indirect advantages arise in
various ways: owned land can serve as
collateral for credit or as a mortgageable
or saleable asset during a crisis. Land
(whether owned or controlled by wom-
en) also increases the probability of wom-

en finding supplementary wage I ,i1 .-.
ment, and serves as an important asset
base for rural nonfarm enterprises. For
instance, those with land are found to

generate much higher rural nonfarm
earnings from self-employment than the
totally landless (Chadha 1992). In short,
women's access to even a small plot
can be a critiical element in a divers'i-
fied livelihood system, and can '.,,- 'i'
icantly inmprolve women's and the frm-
ily's ..'I: even if the plot is not large
enough to provide full family subsis-
tence. And independent access to land
will become increasingly important for
women as marital and kin support erodes,
and female-headed households multiply.

In .1.1. I i. to welfare gains, more gen-
der-equal land rights could also enhance
productive ,* fl i 1.. -. First there is an
incentive effect. Although it is widely
recognized that security of tenure can be
critical for motivating farmers to make
productivity-enhancing investments in
their fields, the need for similar incevn-
tives within the family has been large-
ly ignored. Some recent studies suggest
that incentives could be as important
within families. In Kenya, for example,

where men and women often cultivate
separate plots, the introduction of weed-
ing technology in maize production raised
yields on women's plots by 56 percent
where women controlled the output, and
only by 15 percent on their husbands'
plots, where women also weeded but men
got the proceeds (Elson 1995). Whether
similar results will obtain in India and
other countries will require field testing
and analysis. But the Kenya results pro-
vide an important pointer to the output-
enhancing potential of secure land rights
for women and of their control over produce.
Second, where land access is in the
form of titles (which serve as collateral in
many regions), secure rights for women
would help increase output by improv-
ing women's access to credit. This can
prove especially crucial in situations
where women are the principal farmers,
as where male out-migration is high, or
where widows (or wives) are cultivating
separate plots still formally owned by kin.
Third, research from some other parts
of the world suggests that women might
use land more efficiently than men in
certain contexts. In Burkina Faso, for
instance, due to their choice of cropping
patterns women achieved much higher
values of output per hectare on their own
plots than their husbands did on theirs
(Udry et al. 1995). Although women's
yields for given crops were lower than
men's, this was due to their lesser access
to inputs such as fertilizers which were
concentrated on the men's plots. The
study estimated that output could be
increased by as much as 10-20 per-
cent if such inputs were reallocated
from plots controlled by men to those
controlled by women in the same
household. A literature review of the
effect of gender on agricultural produc-
tivity in several countries of Africa and
Asia also concludes that output could be
increased notably if women farmers had
the same access to inputs and education
as male farmers (Quisumbing 1996).

Fourth, women in many parts of
South Asia are often better informed
than men about traditional seed vari-
eties and the attributes of trees and
grasses. If they had greater control over
land and farming, this knowledge could
be put to better use.
Fifth, tenure security, and especially
titles can empower women to assert
themselves better with agencies that
provide inputs and extension services.
While welfare arguments for women's
land rights have received some policy
attention, there is yet little recognition

of the potential positive effects on effi-
ciency. In fact, some argue that land
transfers to women will have a negative
efficiency effect, in that such transfers
will reduce output by reducing farm size
and increasing fragmentation. However,
there is no noteworthy evidence of an
adverse size effect on output. In fact, in
India and other parts of South Asia,
small farms are found to have a higher
value of output per cultivated unit than
large farms (Banerjee 2000); and frag-

mentation can arise Ii ill with male
inheritance. Also, where necessary,
farmers have dealt with fragmentation in
various ways: consolidation through pur-
chase and sale; land leasing arrange-
ments to bring together cultivation units
even where ownership units are scat-
tered; and joint investment and cultiva-
tion by small groups. In India, as a result
of these measures, the number of frag-
ments per farm has declined from 5.7 in
1961 to 2.7 in 1991.
It is thus important to contest a priori
negative iii. 1. r, arguments, such as
the fragmentation argument, which are
typically put forward only in relation to
women's claims to inheritance, but not in
relation to men's claims. Equally, the pos-
itive productivity effects of more gender-
equal land access, and of greater tenure
security and access to inputs for women
farmers, found in some existing studies,
need emphasis, even while expanding the
base of empirical analysis. As noted, these
positive effects could be especially im-
portant in regions of high female head-
edness, or where the feminization of agri-
culture is moving apace as more men
than women enter nonfarm occupations.

The equality argument is an important
one in and of itself, since gender equali-
ty is a measure of a just and progressive
society. But, in addition, equality in land
rights is a critical element in women's
economic empowerment. The word
"empowerment" is now widely used in
the literature, usually without being
defined. Here empowerment is defined
"as a process that enhances the ability of
disadvantaged ('powerless') individuals
or groups to challenge and change (in
their favor) existing power relationships
that place them in subordinate econom-
ic, social and political positions"
(Agarwal 1 r'*4 39).
F., ... i, om-e'n wo ith loand could
empower lhem economically as well as

strengthen their ability to challenge
social and political gender inequities.
An illustrative example is women's expe-
rience in the f.. ii.-, I .1 struggle in Bihar
(eastern India). Here, in the late-l' i7' ,
women and men of i ii.-- -. households
jointly agitated for ownership rights in
the land they cultivated, which was
under the illegal possession of a Math (a
temple-monastery complex). During the
movement, women demanded indepen-
dent land rights, and received them in
two villages, with marked implications.
In the villages where men alone received
titles, women's insecurity grew, with an
increase in men's tendency to threaten
wives with eviction in situations of do-
mestic conflict: "Get out of the house, the
land is mine now" (Nl ii inl ii 1 15).
But where women got titles they graphi-
, ill described their feeling of being em-
powered: "We had tongues but could not
speak, we had feet but could not walk.
Now that we have the land, we have the
strength to speak and walk" (Alaka and
Chetna 1987: 26). (Also see Box 1.)
This sense of empowerment accom-
panying improved land rights also
enhances women's ability to assert
themselves within the home, in the com-
munity, and with the State.
From the preceding discussion it is
clear that land rights can serve multiple
fj nctions in rural women's lives which
are not to replicate through other
means. This is important to keep in mind
since the present thrust of most nation-
al and international agencies is not on
land rights but on micro-credit programs
which are being promoted as a panacea,
* 1p I iI (but not only) for poor rural
women. Although credit is clearly an im-
portant need for poor women, many indi-
vidual women not only face problems in
retaining control over such loans, but the
privileging of this one form of support
over all other livelihood sources can
prove problematic and diversionary. A
number of evaluations show that such

The Bodhgaya movement, initiated in 1978 in
the Gaya district of Bihar, was a struggle by
landless laborers and sharecroppers to gain
rights in land which they had cultivated for
decades. The land, some 9,575 acres spread
over 138 villages, was held by a Math (a
monastery-cum-temple complex), much of it
in violation of land ceiling laws. Math officials
exploited the peasants and also sexually
abused the women. The struggle emerged
under the leadership of the Chatra Yuva Sang-
harsh Vahini, a Gandhian-socialist youth or-
ganization founded in 1975 by Jayaprakash
Narayan (a contemporary of Mahatma Gan-
dhi) and committed to improving the lot of
the disadvantaged. Vahini membership was
restricted to those under thirty, and includ-
ed women in every tier of the organization.
The movement lasted several years. Its
primary slogan was Jo zameen ko boye jote,
voh zameen ka malik hai (those who sow and
plough the land are the owners of the land).
Women played a crucial role in the move-
ment. In 1980, for instance, the activists
decided to seize the land and cultivate it
independently of the Math. About 3,000
acres were captured and ploughed. Despite
police attacks, sowing was completed. At har-
vest time, the attacks were renewed. Since
women usually harvested the crops, it was
they who faced the brunt. As the repression
intensified, women's involvement increased.
Women also participated in the movement's
nonviolent protests, despite threats of beat-
ings and rape by the Math's hired ruffians.
Over time, women began participating in
equal numbers with the men and also court-
ing arrest with accompanying children.
In addition, women organized shivirs
(camps) to discuss their concerns within the
struggle. They focused on women's exploita-
tion, their exclusive responsibility for house-
work, discrimination against girl children,
men's verbal and physical violence against
them, and (most importantly) women's need
for independent land rights. Resolutions
were passed, including one against wife-
beating and another demanding land in
women's own names.
Finally in 1981, the government identified
1,000 acres of the Math's land for redistribu-

tion to the agitating farmers. The Vahini
drew up a list, giving priority to landless
laborers, the disabled, widows, and small
peasants. Women other than widows did not
figure in the list, and they protested their
exclusion: "We were in the forefront of the
fight, carrying our children in our wombs
and in our arms. We went to jail and
faced the lathis [sticks]; we also did all the
housework. But when the land was distrib-
uted, we were pushed back, we didn't even
come to know by what rules the land was dis-
tributed" (Manimala 1983: 15).
After a prolonged debate on why women
should have independent land rights, in 1982
it was decided that women too would receive
land in their own names in future distribu-
tion. In two villages the villagers unanimous-
ly approved lists for giving land only to
women and widowers. But the District Offi-
cer in charge of registering the titles strong-
ly opposed this, arguing that there was no
precedent for giving land to persons other
than heads of households, who were typical-
ly men. The villagers, however, refused to
take any land unless it was given to women.
Almost three years passed before women
were finally allocated land. In time, all the
Math's illegal holdings were distributed and
women received land in various ways: indi-
vidual titles, joint titles with husbands, as
widows, destitute and disabled persons, and
(without precedent) in some cases as
unmarried adult daughters. Although such
women were few since most girls there were
married before they were eighteen, the idea
that unmarried daughters were eligible was
an important step forward. Each person
received about one acre.
How did all this come about? Initially,
women encountered opposition at three lev-
els: from husbands, from the Vahini activists,
and from government officials. Women's abil-
ity to overcome these layers of opposition
depended on several factors: men's recogni-
tion over time that women's contributions
were crucial to the movement's success; the
growing solidarity among women and their
articulation of their gender-specific interests
as distinct from those of the men of their
class and community; the support of some

middle-class female Vahini activists with a
feminist perspective; and the process of
debate in which women persuasively coum-
tered opposition.
For instance, when the women protested
against their exclusion from the' ii ,II! ., ini-
tial list of land recipients, the men argued:
"What difference does it make in whose name
the land is registered?" The women respond-
ed: "If it doesn't make a difference, then put
it down in the woman's name. Why argue
about it?" To the suggestion that women's
demand would weaken class unity, the wom-
en replied: "F. Til ir- can only strengthen,
not weaken an organization, but if it does
weaken our il that will mean that our real
commitment is not to equality or justice but
to the transfer of power, both economic and
social, from the hands of one set of men to
the hands of another set, of men." When the
men asked: "How can you cultivate the land
on your own? Who will plough it for you?"
they replied: "Well, who will harvest your
crop in that case? We are ready to cultivate
the land with hoes instead of ploughs, but we
want it in our names" (Manimala 1983).
Indeed the significance of the Bodhgaya
struggle from women's perspective lies not
just in its being South Asia's first land strug-
gle where women's land interests received
explicit attention. It also lies in the process
by which this was achieved. It is noteworthy
that a largely illiterate peasant community

credit programs do not reach the poorest
households, let alone change the gender
balance in property ownership and con-
trol. In fact a recent study for Bangla-
desh (cited in IFAD -1,11) identified a
lack of access to land and homesteads as
major factors in the exclusion of the
poorest from credit NGOs.
An alternative to the existing approach
of promoting micro-credit for non-land-
related micro-enterprises is to link land
and micro-credit by providing rural wom-
en who depend on land-based livelihoods
with credit for leasing in or purchasing
land in groups (as discussed later). Here
micro-credit would complement rather
than substitute for efforts to enhance

discussed at length issues such as women's
independent rights in economic resources,
domestic violence, female education, and
postmarital residence, and on several counts
resolved them in women's favor. The debate,
although arduous, brought significant re-
wards. The question of gender i, ,il began
to be seen by many not as divisive but as
integral to the movement's success. As a
result, women's participation in decision-
making also increased, wife-beating and ver-
bal abuse against women was deemed shame-
ful, and male ill .,. i began to take care of
cooking and childcare in the women's shivirs,
while the women participated in discussions.
The Bodhgaya women were also indirect-
ly helped by a growing women's movement
and a spreading feminist consciousness in
the country in the late 1' 7 and early 1980s,
when issues concerning women's rights were
being raised in various forums. In contrast,
women in the Tebhaga movement of the 1940s
(see Box 2) had not demanded independent
land rights. At that time, there was an ab-
sence of cohesiveness among women on gen-
der questions; a lack of spokespersons among
them who could articulate a feminist perspec-
tive; and the absence of a widespread wom-
en's movement in the country. For the Bodh-
gaya women, the situation was favorable on
all these counts. I l .. i. thus able to artic-
ulate their interests overtly. However, the
Bodhgaya experience still awaits replication.

women's land rights. But this would
require a significant shift from the exist-
ing focus of most micro-credit programs.

To what extent do women have effective
land rights in practice? Consider the
three major ways by which women can
gain land: inheritance, State transfers,
and the market. Of these, inheritance is
the most important, since in most coun-
tries arable land is largely privatized. In
India, 86 percent of arable land is pri-
vately held. Moreover, efforts to pro-


mote gender equality in inheritance are
important for ensuring that the land
obtained through the government or the
market does not pass solely to male
heirs in the next generation.

It is not easy to determine how many
women inherit land in practice, given
the noted absence of gender-disaggre-
gated land ownership data at the all-India
level. To assess ownership patterns, we
therefore have to depend on small-scale
studies. These can nevertheless be reveal-
ing, such as a 1991 sample survey of rural
widows by Martha Chen covering seven
states (Table 1; see also Chen 2000).
Chen found that of the 470 women with
landowning fathers, only 13 percent in-
herited any land as daughters. (Region-
ally, the figure ranged from 18 percent in
south India to 8 percent in north India.)
For all-India this means that 87 percent
of the surveyed women did not receive
their legal due as daughters.
Women as widows fared somewhat
better. Of the 280 widows whose de-
ceased husbands owned land, 51 per-
cent inherited some. But this still means


that half the widows with legal claims did
not inherit anything. And of those that
did, typically their shares were not
recorded formally in the village land
records. Other studies have shown that
where the land is so recorded, invariably
the widow's name is entered jointly with
adult sons, who effectively control the
land. The popular perception is that the
widow's share is for her maintenance and
not for her direct control or use. Widows
without sons rarely inherit. Moreover,
widows in India constitute only about 11
percent of rural women, 76 percent of
whom are over 50 years old, many of
them too old to effectively work the land.
Hence inheritance as widows does not
compensate women for their being disin-
herited as daughters.

,vernment Tr "s
A second potential source of land for wom-
en is State transfers. These transfers can
be part of land reform programs, resettle-
ment schemes for those displaced by large
dams and other projects, or antipoverty
programs. Irrespective of the program un-
der which the transfers occur, typically



Rural Widows Who Inherited Land as Daughters and as Widows

Northern India
Uttar Pradesh (hills)
West Bengal
Southern India
Andhra Pradesh
Tamil Nadu
All regions


owned land

Women who inher-
ited as daughters
No. f%
18 8
2 3

owned land

Women who inher-
ited as widows
No. 6
98 51
16 28
27 69
23 51
32 62
45 52
18 49
10 67
17 49
143 51

Source: Martha Chen (personal communication of results from her 1991 survey).
I For all states, other than Kerala, the sample consists only of Hindu widows. In Kerala, it also includes some Muslim matrilineal households.
'This is a subsample consisting of currently widowed women. The original sample had 562 ever-widowed women spread over 14 villages, two
each in the seven states lsted.

the land is allotted almost exclusively to
males, even in communities which tradi-
tionally practiced matrilineal inheritance,
such as the Garos of northeast India.
Also this bias is found no matter which
political party is in power. In West Ben-
gal, for instance, in the late 1970s and
early 1980s the Communist Party of India
(Marxist), which was then in power, car-
ried out "Operation Barga"-a major land
reform initiative which sought to secure
the rights of tenants by systematically
registering them. However, it primarily
registered men. Land (d, i I iI-. I to the
landless also went almost entirely to men.
Although an exception was supposed to
be made for single-women households-
those divorced, deserted, and without
adults sons-few qualifying single wom-
en received land in practice. A village in
Midnapur district studied by Gupta
(1993) is indicative. She found that 98
percent of the 107 holdings distributed
went to men. In nine out of ten female-
headed households the land went to the
women's sons; and only eight of the eigh-
teen single women received land. Mar-
ried women did not receive even joint
This male bias has a long history. His-
torically, even in peasant movements in
which women were significant partici-
pants, they were not recognized as inde-

pendent claimants to land. The Tebhaga
and Telangana movements of the 1 'I-11,
are cases in point (see Box 2 on the for-
mer). Exceptions to this pattern are few
and far between, one being the earlier-
m mentioned 1I' 1 B ..11,-_ i. 1 -i1 ,1_1- in
which women demanded and received
independent land shares in two villages.
In the more recent period, a few of
India's Five Year Plans have given some
recognition to women's land claims. For
instance, the Eighth Five Year Plan
(1992-97) directed state governments to
allot 40 percent of ceiling surplus land to
women alone and the rest i;ill11. to both
spouses. (This was land acquired by the
government from those owning more
than a permissible ceiling.) The Ninth
Five Year Plan (1997-2000) went fur-
ther in terms of policy formulation. In its
chapter on poverty alleviation it incorpo-
rated many of the author's recommenda-
tions on promoting group rights and col-
lective farm management for women,
along with providing infrastructural sup-
port. It also recognized the need for col-
lecting gender-ili; i., .1 informa-
tion on land ownership and use.
The crunch, however, lies in whether
state governments are willing to imple-
ment these recommendations. Also the
ceiling surplus land available for distribu-
tion is extremely limited: it came to only

' ..;.. a to..

The Tebhaga movement emerged in 1946-47
in undivided Bengal, in the footsteps of the
great Bengal famine of 1943. Sharecroppers
in the region had no occupancy rights and
faced a constant threat of eviction. The land-
lords took half the produce while bearing no
part of the production costs, levied illegal
taxes, and sexually abused the women. The
movement, spearheaded by the Bengal
Provincial Kisan Sabha (BPKS), under the
leadership of the Communist Party of India,
demanded a reduction of land rents and an
end to other forms of exploitation. The
women's self-defense league played a critical
mobilizing role among women.
Prior to the movement, sexual exploita-
tion was closely linked to caste and econom-
ic oppression:
Like the mangoes of the [sharecrop-
per's] trees, like the bananas of his
garden, like the gourds of his thatched
roof like the eggplant from his gar-
den, his daughters and daughters-
in-law were the [landlord's] proper-
ty.... If the [landlord] expresses his
wish, the daughter or the wife of the
[sharecropper] will be sent to the
[landlord's] house. (a woman activist,
quoted in Cooper 1988: 102)
Both Hindu and Muslim women partici-
pated in the movement in large numbers:
Women who remained in the villages
during the day... [warned] people of
police arrivals by sounding alarms,
blowing conch shells, for example.
They provided shelter and food for
activists. Women who frequently went
to market became responsible in
some areas for communication and
carrying messages between organiz-
ers. In some ., ig'.ii there were spe-
cial [women's corps] which guarded
S-lin-j., Poor peasant women partic-
ipated in meetings and demonstra-
tions, joined delegations to land-
lords, and occasionally members of
Tebhaga committees, although not
holding particular positions.
However women's militancy was re-
membered mostly because of their

actions to resist arrests, when they
displayed incredible courage, initia-
tive and heroism in rescuing people.
(Cooper 1988: 270-271)
Women's weapons of resistance were
household implements, the commonplace ob-
jects of their daily existence, with which they
(often successfully) confronted the police:
As the police entered the villages, bells
and conch shells used to be blown
and the echo could be heard from one
end to the other... It was the peasant
womenfolk who organized this novel
form of warning. Almost immediate-
ly on hearing this, all the women-
folk would take hold of broomsticks,
lathis and their husking pestles...
and form a barricade on the village
road, so that the police could not
enter (Chakravartty 1980: 90)
In disarming police parties, in resisting
arrests, and in rescuing people, women's ini-
tiatives assumed heroic proportions. On sev-
eral occasions, attempts by landlords to
appropriate the harvested paddy from the
peasants' fields with police help were also
thwarted by the women. For instance, in
Kendemari village:
... they least expected that a militant
group of [peasant] women.., would
advance with daos, choppers and
broomsticks. Tied to their saree-
ends they carried a handful of dust,
mixed with chilli powder As they
approached the police, they threw
this powder in their eyes and the
police ran for their lives. (Chakra-
vartty 1980: 94).
Often, however, the confrontations were
violent, and many courageous women were
injured or killed in police firings.
During the campaign, several gender con-
cerns were voiced, such as wife-beating. As
one woman graphically put it: "[When] the
husband and wife together are dying in the
field, in the battle for Tebhaga; when the two
together are fighting against the enemy, how
then was it possible for one soldier to beat
the other after returning home?" (cited in
Custers 1987: 177). In some areas the cam-

paign against domestic violence made a
strong impact, but in others the culprits got
off lightly. I ... ii.i in Muslim areas when
male peasants objected to women attending
the peasant committee meetings, some of
the women retorted: "It does not hurt your
sense of propriety when we sow or harvest in
the fields ,ii.. i.- -i, you. How does it become
objectionable when we want to attend kisan
samiti meetings?" (cited in Custers 1987:
172). Objections nevertheless continued,
and the issue was never resolved.
Despite women's participation, unequal
gender relations persisted both within and
outside the movement. Whatever gains
women made were ad hoc. Their objections
to domestic violence led to the boycott of

0.56 percent of India's arable land at the
time of the Eighth Plan and today it comes
to less than 0.2 percent of the country's
arable land. Even in West Bengal, a state
with the largest amount of area declared
surplus to date, the total ceiling surplus
land came to only 8.7 percent of the
state's arable land, and today virtually
none is left for distribution.
Hence while it is important to reduce
biases in government land transfers, and
thereby also to send the message that
women's claims deserve attention, in
terms of actual land area such transfers
can go but a small way in improving
Indian women's land status.

The third source of land for women is
through lease or purchase. The weight of
this option will depend on financial, insti-
tutional, and 11i i i ini. 1 support to
women. In itself, this is a limited option
since individual rural women seldom
have access to adequate financial re-
sources for this purpose. Also, in terms
of purchase, rural land markets are often
constrained and land is not always avail-
able for sale. For instance, an all-India
study of land sales among a sample of

some of the male activists responsible, but
the issue was not seen as integral to the larg-
er political struggle to change economic and
social relations that the movement was
addressing. In particular, women's rights in
land were not discussed. Women also played
little role in decisionmaking. And while dur-
ing the most intense periods of the agitation
women emerged from their domestic roles,
they were forced to return to housework and
largely unchanged gender relations within
the family when the ri, ,.-1. ended. It was
not until several decades later, during the
F.. .. ii ,i i movement, that oppression within
the family and women's rights in land
emerged as significant concerns within a
peasant movement in South Asia.

landowning households in the early
1970s found that only 1.75 percent had
sold any land during the survey year
(Rosenzweig and Wolpin 1985). Another
study, for Uttar Pradesh (northwest In-
dia) that examined land sales over a
thirty-year period from the 1950s to the
1 i.'. foumd that only 4.1 percent of
owned agricultural land had been sold
(- 111i .1 1 '"I1). Hence for both sexes,
the possibilities of purchasing land are
limited, with women being especially
constrained. Land purchase through the
market thus cannot compensate for gen-
der inequalities in inheritance or govern-
ment transfers. ti Ir. is somewhat great-
er potential for obtaining land on lease,
since this is more readily available.
For both lease and purchase, howev-
er, external support to women would im-
prove access. For instance, in parts of
South Asia, groups of landless women
have been using subsidized credit pro-
vided by the State, for leasing in or pur-
chasing land in groups, and cultivating it
jointly (as elaborated further below).
Through such collective endeavor, land
through the market could well prove an
important supplementary means for
women to acquire land, even if not the
primary means.

What obstructs women from gaining
greater land access? While the difficul-
ties that individual women face in get-
ting land through the market were indi-
cated above, those relating to private
and government land are more complex.

Pivatized Lan: al, -cial
n ~ mirninistr-acive
To my brother belong your green fields
Father while I am banished afar...
-(Hindi folksong)
Always you said
Your brother and you are the same
0 Father But today you betray me...
My doli leaves .,. house.
-(folksong, personal communication
Veena Das)

Inheritance laws
In most of India, inheritance was tradi-
tionally patrilineal (that is ancestral prop-
erty passed through the male line), with
some limited matrilineal pockets (where
ancestral property passed through the
female line), as in northern and central
Kerala in the south and Meghalaya in the
northeast (Agarwal 1994, 1995). Among
the majority Hindu community, for in-
stance, the common pattern was for
women to inherit only in the absence of
male heirs, typically in the absence of
four generations of men in the male line
of descent. Widows had the first claim
and daughters followed. What women
received, however, was only a limited in-
terest, that is, they enjoyed the property
during their lifetime after which it revert-
ed to the original source. Also women's
rights of disposal were restricted: they
could not mortgage, give, or sell the land,
except in exceptional circumstances. In
most cases, the rights of Muslim women
in customary practice were very similar
to those of Hindu women in their regions
of location.

During the twentieth century, howev-
er, through the concerted efforts of wom-
en's organizations, liberal lawyers, and
social reformers, inheritance laws shift-
ed significantly toward gender equality.
Although these efforts met with stiff re-
sistance from many opinionmakers and
politicians (including India's first Presi-
dent), the changes were facilitated by
the historic moment. It was a time when
the idea of building a modern forward-
looking nation was becoming part of the
popular imagination. Also the first elect-
ed government of Independent India had
a notable body of progressive profession-
als in Parliament, who supported the
idea of gender-equal laws. As a result,
most Indian women were able to negoti-
ate much greater rights in postindepen-
dence law than they had had a century
ago. For instance, the Hindu Succession
Act (HSA) of 1956 made sons, daughters,
and widows equal claimants in a man's
separate property and in his share in the
joint family property. It also gave women
full control over what they inherited, to
use and dispose of as they wished. Simi-
larly, the Muslim Personal Law Shariat
(Application) Act of 1937 substantially
enhanced Muslim women's property
rights compared with those prevailing
under custom.
Yet, in both communities some notable
inequalities remain. Both Hindu and Mus-
lim inheritance laws, for instance, treat
agricultural land differently from other
property. The HSA exempted tenancy
rights in agricultural land from its pur-
view. Hindu women's inheritance in ten-
ancy land thus depends on state-level
tenurial laws, which in most northwest-
ern states specify an order of devolution
that strongly favors male agnatic heirs.
Women come very low in the order of
heirs, as was the case under age-old cus-
toms. Furthermore, these inequalities
cannot be challenged on constitutional
grounds because land reform laws come
under the Ninth Schedule of the Consti-

tution. This constitutional provision was
meant to protect land reform laws from
being challenged by entrenched class inter-
ests, but in the process (albeit unwitting-
ly) it also entrenched gender inequality.
Likewise, the Shariat Act of 1937,
applicable to Muslims in India, excluded
.,11 agricultural land (both tenanted and
owned) from its purview. Subsequently,
some of the southern states extended
the provisions of this Act to also cover
agricultural land. In all other regions,
however, agricultural land, unlike other
property, continues to devolve according
to customs, tenurial laws, or other pre-
existing laws. In most of northwest India,
such laws and customs give women's
property rights very low priority.
A second source of ill 'il ,ii,. lies in
the differential inheritance shares for men
and women. In the HSA, for instance, al-
though sons and daughters have equal
shares in a man's separate property,
there is also the continued recognition of
joint family property in which sons but
not daughters have rights by birth. Again
while three of the southern states (Andhra
Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka) and
Maharashtra have amended this by in-
cluding daughters as coparceners, and
Kerala has abolished joint family proper-
ty altogether, all the other states remain
highly unequal. In the case of Muslim
law, differential shares arise because
daughters are allowed only half the share
of sons in any property.
In both Hindu and Muslim legal sys-
tems the regional contrast is also strik-
ing. Gender i, ql.lil. increases as we
move from south India northward. Among
Hindus, for instance, northwest India is
the most gender unequal in relation to
women's claims in both agricultural land
and joint family property, while the
southern states provide relative legal
equality on both counts. Central India
falls in-between. The map of women's
legal rights under Muslim law looks
rather similar, with a distinct contrast

between northwest India and the rest of
the country.
The enormity of women's disinheri-
tance (such as that noted in Chen's sur-
vey, with only 13 percent of daughters
inheriting), however, cannot be explained
by unequal laws alone. Rather, among
the critical factors underlying both the
law and the gap between law and prac-
tice are social and administrative biases.

Social bias
Consider first the gap between legal
rights and actual ownership. In most com-
munities that were 1, ..i11 l n ill patrilin-
eal there is strong male resistance to
endowing daughters with land. Apart
from a reluctance to admit more claim-
ants to the most valuable form of rural

p~: __ 9

-""" : '" -- '
.- -: o ,,

property, resistance also stems from so-
cial practices which determine marriage
choices and postmarital residence. Tra-
ditionally among matrilineal communi-
ties where daughters had strong claims
in land (as in Kerala and Meghalaya),
postmarital residence was in or near the
natal home. This kept the land under the
overall purview of the natal family, as did
close-kin marriage. In contrast, in tradi-
tionally patrilineal communities, post-

marital residence was patrilocal (the
woman joined her husband in his natal
home) and often in another village. In
addition, in northern India close-kin mar-
riage was forbidden among most com-
munities, and there were social taboos
against parents asking married daugh-
ters for help during economic crises.
Many of these customs continue to-
day, and obstruct women's claims espe-
cially among upper-caste Hindus of the
northwest who are the strictest in for-
bidding in-village and close-kin mar-
riages, and in socially restricting parents
from seeking help from married daugh-
ters. Here endowing a daughter with
land is seen as bringing virtually no re-
ciprocal benefit, and any land inherited
by her is seen as lost to the family.
Daughters face the greatest opposition
to their inheritance claims among such
communities. Opposition is less in south
and northeast India where in-village and
close-kin marriages are allowed, and
parents can, if they need to, seek sup-
port from married daughters.
Many women also forgo their shares
in parental land in favor of brothers. In
the absence of an effective state social
security system, women see brothers as
an important source of security, espe-
cially in case of marital breakup, even if
in practice brothers are seldom willing
to support sisters for extended periods.
Cultural constructions of gender, such
as how a "good sister" would behave,
and practices such as female seclusion in
some areas also discourage women from
asserting their rights. Where women do
not "voluntarily" forgo their inheritance
claims, male relatives have been known
to file court cases, forge wills, or resort
to threats and even physical violence.
The gender gap between the owner-
ship and effective control of land is as
striking as that between law and prac-
tice. Here too social practices and
notions of male entitlements play an

important role. For instance, marriages
in distant villages make direct cultiva-
tion by women difficult. In many areas
this is compounded by illiteracy, high
fertility, and social restrictions on
women's mobility and public interaction.
While the practice of veiling is geograph-
ically restricted, the ideology of female
seclusion is more widespread and oper-
ates in complex ways. Effectively, it
restricts women's contact with men by
gendering forms of behavior, and gen-
dering public and private space. Indeed
in many north Indian villages, there are
identifiable spaces where men congre-
gate which women are expected to
avoid, such as the market place.
This territorial gendering of space
reduces a woman's mobility and partici-
pation in activities outside the home,
especially market interaction; limits her
knowledge of the physical environment;
and disadvantages her in seeking infor-
mation on new agricultural technologies
and practices, in purchasing inputs, and
in selling the product. These restrictions
are strongest in northwest India (and
especially in the plains) and virtually
absent in the south and northeast. Of
course, the cultural construction of gen-
der, which defines appropriate female
behavior, is not confined to northwest
India; it also restricts women in southern
India. But the strong ideology of purdah
in the northwest circumscribes women
in particular ways.
This regional difference in the social
restrictions women face is also reflected
in women's labor force participation rates,
which are among the lowest in the north-
west. Although this does not imply lesser
workloads for women in aggregate terms,
it does indicate lesser work mobility,
lower economic visibility, and sometimes
lesser exposure to the range of agricul-
tural tasks.
Other difficulties facing women farm-
ers include their limited control over

cash and credit for purchasing inputs,
gender biases in extension services, ritu-
al taboos against women ploughing, and
demands of advance cash payments by
tractor or bullock owners for ploughing
women's fields. (No such demand is usu-
,ill made of male farmers, who, even if
they are small owners, are assumed to be
creditworthy.) .I '..... against ploughing
increase women's dependence on male
help and reduce yields if ploughing is not
done in time.

Administrative bias
C 'l iii! il'.i and -'.,I h-, i -I l ii..1 social
constraints are compounded by the un-
helpful approach of many government
functionaries who typically share the pre-
vailing social biases and often obstruct the
implementation of laws favoring women.
The bias is especially prevalent in the re-
cording of daughters' inheritance shares
by village officials. In the northwestern
state of Rajasthan, for instance, a num-
ber of village officials told the author
that although they encouraged widows

to claim their shares, they discouraged
daughters from doing so. Village coun-
cils also tend to favor men on this count.

At one level, all these constraints-
legal, social, and administrative-appear
formidable. Yet, as noted throughout,
there is a striking regional variability in
the strength of the constraints (Agarwal
1994). This provides potential entry
points for change. South India has the
fewest obstacles. Here legal rights are
relatively more equal, in-village and
close-kin marriage is allowed, there is
virtually no purdah, and female labor
force participation is medium to high.
Northwest India is the area of most diffi-
culty on all these fronts. Northeast and
central India come in-between. South In-
dia could thus provide an important start-
ing point for furthering the goal of gen-
der equality in effective property rights.
Demonstrated achievements in one re-
gion could help subsequent attempts in
other regions.

While male bias within families can to
some extent be explained in terms of
conflicting interests and social attitudes
in relation to private land, why do gov-
ernments also transfer public land most-
ly to men? There appear to be several
reasons for this bias.
To begin with, there is the common
assumption that men are the primary
cultivators and breadwinners and women
are the helpers and dependents. There
is also a widespread social perception
regarding women's appropriate roles and
capabilities. Here patrilineal biases have
influenced even matrilineal communities.
In Meghalaya, for instance, when govern-
ment officials were asked by the author
in 1989 why, even in a traditionally ma-
trilineal society, they did not allot land to
women, they responded: "Women can-

not come to our office to fill out papers."
Yet in nearby streets there were numer-
ous women traders selling their wares.
More generally, land-related policy
continues to be formulated largely on the
assumption of a unitary household with-
in which resources transferred to men
are seen as benefiting the whole family.
However, the substantial evidence of
unequal intrafamily resource allocations,
noted earlier, indicates otherwise. Inter-
estingly those who most vociferously op-
pose such resource transfers to women
often implicitly recognize that families
are far from harmonious or altruistic
institutions. Rather they fear that wom-
en will leave the family if they have the
fallback option that property ownership
would provide. For example, during the
Constituent Assembly debate on the re-
form of inheritance and marriage laws
suggested in the Hindu Code Bill in 1949,
one Congress legislator from West Bengal
argued: "[If the daughter inherits,] ulti-
mately the family will break up" and
queried: "Are you going to enact a code
which will facilitate the breaking up of
our households?" (GOI 1949: 1011). For-
ty years later, in 1989, following my pre-
sentation on gender and land rights at a
land reform seminar at the Indian
Planning Commission, the then Minister
of Agriculture from northwest India ex-
claimed: "Are you suggesting that women
should be given rights in land? What do
women want? To break up the family?"
Ironically, neither legislator need have
feared this if indeed households were
models of harmony and altruism, or if its
members had the same interests and
A concern with family unity also limits
the nature of transfers to women in the
rare cases when such transfers do take
place. For instance, there is a long-
standing assumption in public policy that
farms will be cultivated on a family basis.
As a result, the emphasis has been most-
ly on giving women joint titles with hus-

bands, and allotting titles to widows only
in the absence of adult men in the family.
In fact, it is fallacious to assume that
improving women's economic situation will
lead to family break-up. The likelihood is
that greater economic equality between
men and women within the Indian fami-
ly will help improve intrahousehold
resource allocation and gender relations
and strengthen family relationships. For
instance, husbands will be less likely to
desert or divorce wives who own proper-
ty or have other means of access to
assets such as land or homesteads.


Given their entrenched nature, how can
the noted obstacles to women's land
rights be overcome? To enhance gender
equality in land and livelihoods, changes
appear necessary on at least five counts:
conceptual, legal, social, institutional,
and infrastructural (see Box 3).

c and
For a start, it appears necessary to chal-
lenge the conventional model of a har-
monious male-headed family in analysis
as well as policy, and to recognize the
family for what it is: a unit of both coop-
eration and conflict, of both sharing and
selfishness, where women and men can
have different interests, preferences, and
motivations, where self-interest also
enters, and where allocations are often
unequal and affected by differential bar-
gaining power. Indeed, there is an
emerging consensus among gender-
aware economists about the validity of
the bargaining approach to understand-
ing intrahousehold dynamics. But ideo-
logically the unitary household model
holds strong. If we are to think of radical
and effective interventions, it appears
critical to shift to more realistic assump-
tions about intrafamily behavior when
formulating policy.

For Improving Women's Claims
in Private Land
1. Gender E-li ,il1 in inheritance laws
2. Legal literacy and legal support serv-
3. Village-level i-. 1.ii.:..' of women's
4. Social and economic support for wom-
en from outside the 1 Ii I ,., including
through an effective social .. Iii.
5. Changing social attitudes

For Improving Women's Access
to Public Land
Gender !i.i in public land distribu-
tion in:
1. Land reform schemes
2. Resettlement schemes
3 Other schemes, such as those initiated
under poverty-alleviation programs

For Improving Women's Access
to Land Via the Market
1. Subsidized credit for land purchase or
2. Land purchase or lease via group forma-
tion, and group cultivation of such land

For Improving the Viability of
Women's Farming Efforts
1. Agricultural extension services and
other infrastructural support for
women farmers
2. Resource pooling and group invest-
ment in capital equipment; coopera-
tive marketing
3. Women's effective presence in ill.,-'
decisionmaking bodies
4. Gender sensitizing through the media,
educational institutions, etc., for chang-
ing social norms and social perceptions.

It is also important to gather system-
atic gender- i- ., --,.. ..i.r. information
on land ownership and use, both for bet-

ter understanding the existing situation
and for effective monitoring. The Agri-
cultural Census of India and the National
Sample Surveys (NSS), which both carry
out periodic data collection on land own-
ership and use, ..11 I only household-
level information. There is a case here
for incorporating, in the next NSS round,
a special module of questions for obtain-
ing gender-disaggregated intrahouse-
hold information. If necessary, this could
initially be tried on a pilot basis, and sub-
sequently extended to the full survey.
Nepal, as noted, has already redesigned
its census to gather such information.
Researchers collecting land-related data
in other projects could also be encour-
aged to collect gender-disaggregated in-
formation on land ownership and use.

The legal aspects should include at least
three elements.
Amending the inheritance laws: 1 1I,
would include a number of changes, such
as bringing agricultural land on par with
other forms of property in the laws ap-
plicable to Hindus as well as those ap-
plicable to Muslims; abolishing the joint
family property provision in the HSA, as
done in Kerala; and so on. Even though
legal changes are not a sufficient condi-
tion for ensuring women's ownership and
control over property, legal equality pro-
vides an essential tool in the hands of
gender-progressive groups, who could then
work for defacto ]i1 i lil Progressive leg-
islation also underlines the State's com-
mitment to the idea of gender III.1ili
Legal literacy: This is essential to
make laws i- live and needs to reach
both adults and near-adults. For the lat-
ter, legal literacy could be made part of
the curriculum in the senior years of
Recording women's shares: Village
women need support to ensure that their
land shares are correctly recorded by the
relevant I1.' official, and need legal

advice and help if they wish to contest
their claims with either the family or the
In all these efforts, gender-progres-
sive groups could play a significant role.

Unless and until women's claims begin to
be seen as socially legitimate, parents
who have a male bias are likely to use
the right of making wills to disinherit
daughters, even if the laws are made
fully gender-equal. Similarly, efforts are
needed to change conservative or nega-
tive perceptions about women's appro-
priate roles and abilities, and to chal-
lenge social norms that restrict women's
public mobility and interaction.
For instance, the problem posed by
women's marriage outside the natal vil-
lage arises only partly from the distances
involved and mostly from social strictures
on women's mobility, and social percep-
tions about women's lesser abilities and
deservedness. Men are seldom denied
their property rights even if they migrate
to distant parts (as many men, especially
younger ones, do to seek jobs in cities).
Although social attitudes, norms, and
perceptions are not easy to alter, certain
types of interventions could further the
process. For instance, government initia-
tives to transfer land titles and infrastruc-
tural support to women farmers would
have a notable demonstration effect. In-
terventions to strengthen extrafamily
economic support for women, including
through a government social security
scheme, would help reduce women's de-
pendence on relatives and especially on
brothers in whose favor women often
forgo their claims. Overall, economic sup-
port would also enhance women's ability
to challenge inequalities in the family
and community. In so far as the popular
media is one of the arenas where gender
roles and relations are both projected
and constructed, media interventions in

a gender-progressive direction would
also help transform social attitudes.

Reforms in this area need to be holistic
and innovative. For instance, policymak-
ers generally assume that farms will be
cultivated on a family basis. Hence to the
extent that the government is beginning
to recognize that women farmers too
have legitimate claims in land, joint titles
(titles held jointly by husbands and
wives) are mostly favored. Such titles
have both positive and negative implica-
tions. On the positive side, clearly get-
ting some land is better for women than
having none. But on the negative side,
joint titles also present women with sev-
eral potential problems. Women often
find it difficult to gain control over the
produce, or to bequeath the land as they
want, or to claim their shares in case of
marital conflict. As some rural women
explained: "By being tied to the land we
would be tied to the man, even if he beat
us" (author's interviews, 1989). Also
with joint titles wives cannot easily exer-
cise their priorities in land use if these
priorities happen to differ from those of
their husbands. Most importantly, joint
titles constrain women from exploring
alternative institutional arrangements
for cultivation and management.
Individual titles, by contrast, give
women greater flexibility and control
over the land. At the same time, individ-
ual women often lack funds for equip-
ment or inputs, and where holdings are
very small individual investment in
equipment can prove uneconomical.
Individual women also face considerable
pressure from male relatives who want
to acquire or control the land.
However, institutional solutions to
these problems can be found, provided
women's land claims are not tied to their
spouses, and if the unit of investment
and cultivation is not limited to the

Form of control
Conventional approach
Individual women
1. Individual
2. Individual ownership,
group management
by women

3. Group of
4. Group of

5. Group of

Source of land


Inherited or purchased Individual

Inherited, purchased, Joint (with
or government transfer other women)

Group purchase of
private land by women,
divided into individually
owned plots
Group lease of private
Male owners; cultivation
overseen by women's
Government transfer
to women's groups

Joint (with
other women)




Examples of actual
Cultivation Use practice

Individual Crops Typical

Individual Crops Bodhgaya (Bihar)
(government promoted)



Crops Deccan Development
Society (DDS) in
Andhra Pradesh

,. l-r ii.,l Kerala

Individual Crops DDS's Community
Grain Fund Scheme


Crops Untried so far

household, indeed is not i- "'. 'I .. the
household at all. Table 2 summarizes
these ..,ill. i Ii rives.
One alternative would be to help
women who own individual holdings
(whether obtained Ilii ..l inheritance,
purchase, or from the government) to
invest in capital inputs jointly with other
women, while managing production indi-
vidually. Male farmers have done this in
several regions, by jointly investing, say,
in a tubewell where they have contiguous
plots. This reduces the individual cost of
major investments. Women owners of
plots could be encouraged to do the
same. In fact, in B .. ii ... i. a government
scheme provided funds to groups of five
farmers each to invest in pumpsets. Two
such groups were constituted of women
farmers alone. Although there are no fol-
low-up reports on how well this worked,
it was a step in the right direction.
A second type of arrangement could
be for women to purchase land jointly
while owning it individually and farming
it collectively. One of the most interest-
ing examples of this is the Deccan
Development Society (DDS), an NGO
working with poor women's collectives
in some 75 villages in Medak district--a

drought-prone tract of Andhra Pradesh
(AP) in southern India. DDS has helped
women from 1ii,11 fiiiii. establish
claims on land, through purchase and
lease, using various government schemes
(for a detailed discussion, see Menon
1 1,, Satheesh 1 7; and Agarwal 2001).
One such scheme of the Scheduled
Caste Development Corporation in AP
provides subsidized loans to ,.ll.-
scheduled caste women for buying agri-
cultural land. Catalyzed by DDS, women
form a group, apply for the loan after
identifying the land they want to buy,
and divide the purchased land among
themselves, each woman being registered
as the owner of about an acre. Cultiva-
tion, however, is done jointly by each
group. Today 24 women's groups in 14
villages are jointly cultivating 474 acres
of purchased land. In the process of
working together, they have learned to
survey and measure land, hire tractors,
travel to distant towns to meet govern-
ment officials, obtain inputs, and market
the produce. Moreover, DDS has system-
atically promoted organic farming in all
its crop cultivation schemes. Women also
grow a combination of crops (rather than
a single crop), which reduces the risk of

Women Managing Land Under Various Institutional Arrangements

total crop failure and provides a more
balanced diet.
Joint purchase and cultivation of land
by women's groups could now be encour-
aged in other states as well, on the basis
of other government schemes. For in-
stance, a 1995-96 central government
scheme in India provides loans to the
poor for land purchase as part of the In-
tegrated Rural Development Programme.
A third possibility lies in women leas-
ing land as a group and cultivating it
jointly. Under one of DDS's programs,
women in AP lease in land from private
owners. Initiated in 1989, the program is
now said to cover 623 acres across 52
villages. Under another of DDS's efforts,
women's groups have used loan money
available via the government's poverty
alleviation scheme, DWACRA (Develop-
ment of Women and Children in Rural
Areas), for leasing in land. Committees
of women examine the lease proposals,
assess land quality, keep records of each
woman's work input, and ensure equi-
table distribution of wages and produce.
Women who fail to turn up for collective
labor are subject to fines (such as two
days' wage equivalent) decided by the
women in their weekly group meeting.
Persistent default can lead to exclusion
from the group (author's interviews,
September 1998). Several women's groups
have used the revolving fund provided
under this scheme to collectively lease
in and cultivate land. An assessment in
1995 showed that each woman partici-
pant received enough cereal and pulses
to feed the whole family for a month, in
addition to receiving harvest wages.
DWACRA loans have seldom been used
in such innovative ways.
DDS is not the only NGO encouraging
land leasing by women's groups. In Ker-
ala, some women's groups are leasing
land during the off-season for vegetable
cultivation. In Bangladesh, women's
groups belonging to the Bangladesh Ru-

ral Advancement Committee (BRAC)
grow crops on leased-in land.
A fourth type of institutional arrange-
ment is of women's groups managing and
overseeing cultivation on land owned by
men. Again DDS provides an illustrative
example. Here women are jointly over-
seeing the cultivation of privately owned
land that had been lying mostly fallow.
Most of this was ceiling surplus land of
poor quality distributed by the govern-
ment to landless men. The land remained
largely uncultivated, while the families
depended heavily on the public distribu-
tion system (PDS), which was woefully in-
adequate for providing food security. Sup-
ported by the Ministry of Rural Develop-
ment, DDS initiated this program to bring
fallow land under the plough, by extend-
ing subsidized loans to the owners. Un-
der the scheme, each participating farm-
er can enter two acres, and get loans in
installments over three years. In return,
over five years, the farmer gives a speci-
fied percentage of the grain he harvests
to a Community Grain Fund (CGF). Com-
mittees of women make sure that the
farmers use the loans for cultivation and
collect the harvest share for the CGF.
This grain is sold at a low price to the
poorest households in each village. The
CGF thus serves as a form of alternative
PDS. This project is now working in 43
villages, covering 3,263 acres and 2,247
marginal and small farmers, and is esti-
mated to have produced enough extra
grain to provide 3 million total extra
meals or 1,000 extra meals per family.
A fifth type of arrangement, untried
to date, is one where poor rural women
could hold group rights over land dis-
tributed by the government, or otherwise
acquired by women (Agarwal 1994). Ef-
fectively, the women would be stakehold-
ers in a kind of land trust. Each woman
in the group would have use rights but
not the right to alienate the land. The
daughters-in-law and daughters of such

households who are resident in the vil-
lage would share these use rights. Daugh-
ters leaving the village on marriage would
lose such rights but could re-establish
them by rejoining the production efforts,
should they return, say on divorce or
widowhood. In other words, land access
would be linked fI in! il with residence
and working on the land, as was the case
under some traditional i i, when
land was held collectively by a clan.
In these various institutional alterna-
tives, women are not just adjunct work-
ers on family farms; they have direct
control over production and distribu-
tion. Cooperation is between women
with common, interests, and not be-
tween households. The arrangements en-
able women to gain access to land
through the market or through the com-
munity-access that women rarely have
as individuals. Where linked with land
I -i-11 L,. joint investment, and collective
management, these arrangements can
also help overcome any problems of
small size and fragmentation.
Moreover, a collective approach to
land management helps women mobilize
funds for capital investment on the farm,

take advantage of economies of scale,
and cooperate in labor sharing and pro-
duct marketing. In addition, if the land is
held under a system of group rights (as
in the fifth alternative) it would strength-
en women's ability to withstand pressure
from relatives and retain control over the
land; and it would circumvent the prob-
lem of inheritance, since the women would
not have rights of alienation (see Box 4).
It would also circumvent the issue of
outside-village marriages, since women's
rights would be based on residence. In
1995, when the author asked a number
of women elected to village panchayats
in \l ii i Pradesh which arrangement
they felt might be of most advantage to
women -il.1i, i11i il titles, joint titles
with husbands, or ,r!~ilp rights with
other women-most strongly supported
the idea of group rights (Madhya
Pradesh Chief Minister's consultation
meeting in 1995 on the state's proposed
Policy for Women).
Some policymakers and scholars ar-
gue against cooperative farming by point-
ing to India's failed efforts of the P'I i.
and early 1 .11i However, the focus then
was on households, and on male heads as

v Land and qn i cy

The following quotes capture the changes
women have experienced:
Our husbands used to drink and beat
us. Now the buffaloes are ours, the
land is ours and they are working
too. Nobody is taking advantage of us
women. (Ratnamma, Algole village, cited
in Hall 1999)
Now [with land] we have the courage
and confidence to come out and deal
with people and property by our-
selves. (Chilkamma, Krishnapur village,
cited in Hall 1999)
Now we are self-sufficient. [We are]
able to get food and clothing.... Pre-
viously we had nothing and had to
say yes to everything; now we have sta-
tus because we have the land. (Pasta-
pur women's group, cited in Hall 1999)
Initially the men said: If women go to
meetings, what should we men do-
wash the dishes? We said, men and
women should work equally... Are
we the only persons born to work?
Earlier we ate half a roti, now we eat
one. (Sharifabi to author 1998)
[With group cultivation] women can
share the profit and the responsibili-
ty. In individual cultivation, dffer-
ent women have different levels of
agricultural knowledge and re-
sources for inputs. In collective culti-
vation they can make unequal con-
tributions. Those with less can com-
pensate the others by taking a re-
duced share of the harvest, or by
repaying them in installments. Differ-

representatives of households. Not only
did gender receive no mention, but inad-
equate attention was paid also to socio-
economic inequalities between house-
holds, with the result that cooperatives
were often large-farmer dominated. A
crucial difference in the approaches out-
lined here is that the institutional forms
discussed shift the focus of cooperative

ent levels of contribution are fine, be-
cause the women all know what each
other's resources are. (Chinanarsamma,
Pastapur village, cited in Hall 1999)
They [the high-caste people] used to
call us with the caste name which
was very derogatory. They would
also call us in the singular form.
Now they put the motherly [respect-
ful] suffix and give us equal seats....
It is only because we have an orga-
nization that they [the landlords]
won't touch us-that they are scared
to cross us. (Ratnamma, Algole village,
cited in Hall 1999)
[We]found that during the course of
meeting, we became a kind of mutu-
al support group. If any woman fell
ill or had a problem, the others would
try and help. So it became a habit to
meet, and we were not afraid offam-
ily disapproval. Gradually the fami-
ly realized the importance of our
meetings to us and fell silent. (Single
women's group to author, 1998)
The first sense of empowerment came
to women and men in the communi-
ty when the women started leasing in
land. Men, and especially powerful
men in the villages, had the percep-
tion that women were useless, that as
agricultural labourers they could only
work under supervision. This per-
ception was slightly internalized by
the women. The land leases complete-
ly debunked this view. (P.V. Satheesh,
Director of DDS, cited in Hall 1999)

efforts from disparate village households
to disadvantaged individuals with com-
mon interests. Focusing on the effects on
poor women could open an important win-
dow of opportunity to revive land reform,
community cooperation, and joint farm-
ing in a radically new form.
For trying out some of these institu-
tional arrangements the southern states

could be starting points, since here both
laws and the social context (as noted)
are relatively less gender-biased than in
the northern states.

In trujr';-u.rai
The success of women's farming efforts,
whether as individuals or groups, can
depend crucially on their access to infra-
structure. As noted earlier, there are sig-
nificant gender (in addition to class) in-
equalities in access to credit, labor, other
production inputs (including hired equip-
ment), and information on new agri-
cultural technologies. Poor women culti-
vating very small plots have the most dif-
ficult time in this regard.
Prevailing gender biases in the delivery
of government infrastructure thus need
to be removed. To some degree, this could
be done by employing more women in
agricultural input and information del-
ivery systems (women extension agents
are often recommended for this purpose),
but such systems also need a reorien-
tation of male functionaries so that they
too contact and assist women farmers.
Also, dependence on the State alone
may not be enough, or have the same
potential for success in reaching women
as nongovernmental initiatives. For in-
stance, in credit delivery to poor women,
NGOs such as the Grameen Bank in Ban-
gladesh and the Self Employed Women's
Association (SEWA) in India have been
more successful than government agen-
cies. 1'!, role of NGOs could similarly be
important in providing technical infor-
mation, production inputs, and market-
ing facilities to groups of women farmers.
BRAG in Bangladesh is a case in point:
although it does not focus only on wom-
en, it provides a range of relevant infor-
mational, technical, and market support
services to its members. A systematic
promotion of women's cooperatives for
production inputs and marketing could
also be considered.

If today... Itheyl who fought for the hi-
dependence of India are to be denied
their just rights, then our hard-earned
freedom is no more than a handful of
-Padmaja Naidu, Congress Legislator
(Parliamentary debates over thle Hindu
Code Bill, 1951)
For initiating and sustaining the
,'** / of 1 ., ic required to
strengthen women's land claims in
India, the committed involvermerint of a
range of actors, anrd especially. ofa wide
spectrum of women, be necessary.
It will require various forms of collective
action by women, both in relation to
State policy and its implementation, and
in relation to land access via the market,
the community, and the family. Such col-
lective action should also seek to bring
into its fold gender-progressive elements
(men and women) within the 'i ii.
political parties, and civil society groups.
After over two decades of the wom-
en's movement in India, many now rec-
ognize the importance of collective action.
But much of the effort to enhance wom-
en's economic empowerment has been
concentrated on issues other than land
(or property), such as better wages,
group i- -ii schemes, micro-enterprise
development, and so on. Group action is
now needed for women to gain access to
land, in recognition of its central impor-
tance in most rural women's livelihoods,
whether as the primary or a supplemen-
tary income source.
The local bureaucracy would be more
likely to register individual women's
claims in family land if there were collec-
tive pressure from gender-progressive
groups. Such organizations could also
provide women with vital information
about the laws and legal support, if nec-
essary. In fact, a woman's group in the
Santal Parganas is providing both legal
support and financial help to women who
wish to contest their claims (personal

communication from social activist Nitya
Rao, Bombay, 1997). Similarly, SEWA in
Gujarat gives women loans to help them
register their names as joint owners in
their husbands' land (personal commu-
nication, Renana Jhabvala, 1997).
Gender-progressive organizations could
also strengthen women's bargaining
position through economic and social
support structures that reduce women's
dependence on male relatives, especial-
ly their brothers in whose favor women
often forfeit their claims As a woman
member of BRAC tellingly asserted:
"Well the organization is [now] my 'broth-
er' (Hunt 1983: 38). Such organizations
could also help women demand that the
government put in place a well-struc-
tured social security system.
Equally, a collective challenge by wom-
en can facilitate some change in restric-
tive social norms. Even female seclusion
practices can be subject to change
through group challenge. In fact women's
attempts to collectively challenge purdah
go back a long way. In India in the 1920s
and 1930s, for instance, many individuals
and organizations, both Hindu and Mus-
lim, highlighted the burden and con-
straints imposed on women by purdah;
and resolutions against the practice were
also passed by a number of groups. In the
city of Calcutta, an anti-purdah day be-
came an annual event in the 1930s, orga-
nized by the Hindu Marwari business
community (which prescribed strict
purdah). In 1940, some 5,000 women
attended an anti-purdah conference.
The woman president of the conference
arrived in a car driven through the city
by a Marwari woman, followed by a pro-
cession of Marwari women on foot led by
girls riding on horseback (Forbes 1981)!
Today the challenge to purdah con-
tinues both in India and in other parts of
South Asia. In Bangladesh, for instance,
while economic exigency has created the
need to challenge purdah, group solidar-
ity has strengthened women's ability to

sustain the challenge. As a women's group
organized by BRAC noted in the 1980s:
They said... [we] are ruining the
prestige of the village and breaking
purdah.... Now nobody talks ill of us.
They say: "They have formed a group
and now they earn money, it is
good." (cited in Chen 1983: 177, 165)
In fact, the experiences of the
Grameen Bank, BRAG, SEWA, and many
other NGOs working with poor women,
using a group approach, suggest that
some restrictive social norms could be
challenged successfully as a by-product
of forming groups for the more effective
delivery of economic programs.
Group support for village women can
be provided both by separately constitut-
ed groups which give women specialized
help, and by organizations comprised of
village women themselves. The presence
of more women in the village panchay-
ats, as a result of the one-third reserva-
tion for women provided by the 73rd
Constitutional Amendment in India in
1992, can also strengthen rural women's
hands. Although simply having more
women in such bodies cannot guarantee
gender-progressive programs, the record
of elected all-women village panchayats
preceding the Amendment, as in Maha-
rashtra and Madhya Pradesh, leaves
room for optimism: women in these bod-
ies were found to be more sensitive to
women's concerns and to give priority to
their needs in ways that male panchayat
members typically did not (Gandhi and
Shah 1991). Women's presence in posi-
tions of authority also has a favorable
demonstration effect and can change
social attitudes and perceptions about
women's roles. Moreover, village women
are more likely to take their grievances
to women representatives than to all-
male bodies.
However, support for women's land
claims on a large scale, and beyond
localized experiments, will need much
more broad-based collective action by

women. For building such cooperation,
economic and social differences between
women might prove to be obstacles on
certain counts. But there are still -ig-nir-
icant areas of mutual benefit that cut
across class/caste lines, around which
successful cooperation would be possi-
ble, and which could serve as starting
points. One is legal reform. Women of
both rich and poor peasant households
with a stake in family land stand to gain
from gender-equal inheritance laws.
Many people mistakenly assume that the
percentage of such women is small. In
fact it is substantial: despite the highly
skewed distribution of land, some 89
percent of rural Indian households own
some land, even if most own only small
plots. Eql Iiil challenging restrictive so-
cial norms v. ill bring benefits for women
of both well-off and poor households.
The experience of the women's move-
ment in India also indicates that women
of different socioeconomic backgrounds
can cooperate .-in i -,r ,I for legal re-
form, as they did in campaigns to amend
dowry and rape laws, despite differences
in ideologies, agendas, and social com-
position. Moreover, many urban middle-
class women activists have played and
continue to play important roles in pro-
moting poor rural women's economic and
social concerns, such as supporting their
campaigns for higher wages, and their
programs for wasteland management,
credit, and small-enterprise development.
In more recent years, there have been
also some significant cases of middle-
class activists promoting poor women's
land claims, as in the Bodhgaya move-
ment in Bihar, the Shetkari Sanghatana
in Maharashtra, and the DDS in Andhra
Pradesh. These experiences again indi-
cate that cooperation between women,
which cuts across economic and social
hib,. 4, ii.- iti., is possible on a number of
issues and in varied contexts.
All said, there now appears to be a
favorable climate for raising the question

of women's independent claims to land
and livelihood, and it is imperative to do
so, given the noted importance of land in
women's lives. Some NGOs which earlier
concentrated on other issues are now
beginning to focus on women's property
issues, including agricultural land and
homestead plots in rural areas, and
dwelling houses in urban areas. Cases in
point are SEWA in Gujarat, Action India
in Delhi, and the Association for Land
Reform and Development in Bangladesh.
Several grassroots groups and develop-
ment organizations in South Asia have
held workshops on the question of wom-
en and land in recent years. In Nepal a
movement has been ongoing for several
years spearheaded by feminist lawyers
for reforming gender-unequal inheri-
tance laws. A number of South Asian
women's groups also have been arguing
for gender equality in inheritance laws
by emphasizing that their constitutions
promise equal treatment of women and
men. Moreover, women's groups that
have not raised the issue of women's
land and property claims directly have
still, over the years, spread an aware-
ness of gender concerns. This has creat-
ed an environment within which wom-
en's claims to land can be placed more
centrally in the arena of public con-
cerns-something that was not easy to
do twenty years ago.
A window of opportunity is also pro-
vided by the growing attention being
given to watershed development and
localized irrigation schemes by a number
of NGOs and some government agen-
cies, in several parts of South Asia. But
once land becomes more valuable with
the availability of irrigation, women's
land claims are unlikely to be recog-
nized. The opportune time to establish
women's claims is during the process of
developing the watershed or irrigation
facility, not afterward.
Moreover, as noted, there needs to be
a shift away from the overwhelming pre-

occupation of most rural NGOs, donor
agencies, and governments with micro-
credit delivery toward the creation of
productive assets, especially landed as-
sets, in women's own hands, and toward
enhancing women's capacities as farm-
ers. In this context, women's rights in
arable land and homesteads need to
become a central part of the development
discourse. Here development agencies
that fund research or grassroots action
could also play a significant positive role.
In seeking change, the aforementioned
regional variations in women's social po-
sition and hence in the extent of opposi-
tion to women's land claims could be put
to useful effect, for instance by initially
building a momentum for change in re-
gions of less opposition (such as in the
southern states of India), and then work-
ing for change in the more resistant
Finally, given that this issue is signifi-
cant and relevant for women in many
countries, there is scope here for sharing
experiences and strategies for change;
for building horizontal linkages between
groups with similar goals; and for inter-
national coalitions both between South
Asian countries and between South Asia
and other parts of the globe. This would

be facilitated by emerging international
support for women's claims in property.
The Convention on the Elimination of All
Forms of Discrimination Against Women
(CEDAW) has focused on equality in
property as one of its important direc-
tives. The United Nations Conference on
Human Settlements at its Istanbul meet-
ing in 1996 also focused centrally on
women and land. Since then the Huairou
Commission in conjunction with the
UNDP, Habitat, WEDO, and the Women's
Caucus of the UN Commission on Sus-
tainable Development has held several
discussions with women's groups world-
wide, to examine regional progress in en-
hancing women's access to land and prop-
erty. The Huairou Commission is also re-
questing support for a global campaign to
promote women's claims in land and prop-
erty, and in housing rights for the urban
poor under the auspices of the United
Nations Center for Human Settlements.
All these national, regional, and inter-
national efforts that are beginning to
emerge suggest that today the climate is
certainly more favorable than it was two
decades ago, for responding positively to
the concerns raised by poor women in
West Bengal: "Why don't we get a title?
Are we not peasants?"

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Judith Bruce (Population Council)
Marty Chen (Harvard University)
Monique Cohen (USAID)
Caren Grown (International Center for Research on Women)
Ann Leonard (Consultant)
Joyce Malombe (New Hampshire College)
Katharine McKee (USAID)
Aruna Rao (Consultant)
Mildred Warner (Cornell University)
Corinne Whitaker (International Women's Health Coalition)

Editor: Sandy Schilen
Editorial and Production Coordinator: Monica Rocha
Mike Vosika
Cover Photo: Preeti Schaden

; i ,- '. "*'. '- : C I. ,", :.,'; I:. ,,' ,',. r .-

No. 2 Hanover Street: An Experiment to
Train Women in Welding and Car-
pentry-Jamaica (English, Spanish)
No. 3 Market Women's Cooperatives: Giv-
ing Women Credit-Nicaragua (Span-
ish, French)
No. 4 Women and Handicrafts: Myth and
Reality-International (English, Span-
ish, French)
No. 5 The Markala Cooperative: A New Ap-
proach to Traditional Economic
Roles-Mali (French)
No. 6 The Working Women's Forum: Organ-
izing for Credit and Change-India
No. 7 Developing Non-Craft Employment
for Women in Bangladesh (English,
French, Spanish)
No. 8 Community Management of Waste Re-
cycling: The SIRDO-Mexico (Eng-
lish, Spanish)
No. 9 The Women's Construction Collective:
Building for the Future-Jamaica
(English, Spanish)
No. 10 Forest Conservation in Nepal: En-
couraging Women's Participation
(English, Spanish, French, Nepali)

No. 11 Port Sudan Small Scale Enterprise
Program-Sudan (English)
No. 12 The Muek-Lek Women's Dairy Proj-
ect in Thailand (English)
No. 13 Child Care: Meeting the Needs of
Working Mothers and Their Children
(English, Spanish)
No. 14 Breaking New Ground: Reaching Out
to Women Farmers in Western Zam-
bia (English, Spanish, French)
No. 15 Self-Employment as a Means to
Women's Economic Self-Sufficiency:
Women Venture's Business Develop-
ment Program (English)
No. 16 Wasteland Development and the Em-
powerment of Women: The SARTHI
Experience (French, Hindi)
No. 17 Supporting Women Farmers in the
Green Zones of Mozambique (English)
No. 18 Out of the Shadows: Homebased
Workers Organize for International
Recognition (English)
No. 19 Empowering the Next Generation:
Girls of the Maqattam Garbage Set-
tlement (English, Arabic)
No. 20 Women Street Vendors: The Road to
Recognition (English)

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