How land rights for women could help fight climate change


Editor's note: The GroundTruth Project is an editorial partner for the Trust Women Conference, which takes place Nov. 18-19 in London. The annual conference, organized by the Thompson Reuters Foundation, brings together global corporations, lawyers and pioneers in the field of women's rights to take action and forge tangible commitments to empower women.

Climate change is not gender-neutral.

Women in the developing world are often responsible for household food security, agricultural work, and water and fuel harvesting, which are all impacted by climate change. At the same time, women often do not have rights to those resources and are often excluded from the decision-making that could improve their sustainable use.

Desertification, for example, forces women to travel farther for water and firewood. Natural disasters kill more women than men, as women are less likely to be able to flee to safety in anticipation of a disaster. And rising global temperatures pose challenges for women who are the primary suppliers of household food.

A growing body of evidence supports the notion that women’s economic empowerment through more secure land rights is critical to mitigating and adapting to climate change. But we have yet to integrate this thinking into our climate change efforts.

If we, as a global community, are going to successfully address climate change, we also need to address women’s land rights.

In the developing world, the majority of women who live in rural areas do not have secure rights to the land they farm. More often than not, a woman’s right to land depends on a good relationship with a male relative, like a father or a husband.

Without legal control over the land they farm or the proceeds of their labor, women have neither the incentive, the security, nor the opportunity to invest in the land to conserve its long-term productivity.

A woman in this situation knows, for example, that if she works to irrigate her field or plant an orchard, there is a good chance that she will not be the one to reap the benefits.

Consider what this means for conservation efforts. We are asking women to conserve trees and engage in labor-intensive, environmentally friendly farming methods, often on land they have no long-term interest in.

The evidence confirms this. A World Bank study in Uganda, for example, found that when families had secure rights to land, they were more likely to plant trees and more likely to use soil conservation techniques.

Research by the UK’s Department for International Development found that land ownership can provide women with an incentive to engage in sustainable farming practices and make long-term investments in land rehabilitation and soil quality, which help mitigate the effects of climate change.

We need to change women’s relationship to land, so that they have the ability to mitigate the effects of climate change. And we need to change women’s relationship to land so that women have an incentive to improve that land’s long-term health.

And if that is not enough – we need to integrate women into the climate change debate, because in the end, it affects all of us.

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Elisa Scalise is a senior attorney and land tenure expert and Jennifer Duncan is director of Africa programs at Landesa, a global development non-profit organization that works to secure land rights for the world’s poor. Elisa will be speaking on women’s access to land rights at the Trust Women conference November 18-19 in London.