Moving past “zombie statistics” for gender-equitable tenure

Photo: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR
Photo: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR
This article was written by a social reporter. It has not been edited by the Forum organisers or partners, and represents the opinion of the individual author only.

Pop quiz: how much land in developing countries do women own?

A: Less than one per cent

B: Two to five per cent

C: Ten per cent

D: I don’t know

This was the opening question posed to the group gathered at the high session on gendered perspectives on land rights at this year’s Global Landscapes Forum. The moderator, James Astill of The Economist, read out the choices and counted the hands.

Option A had a strong minority, B was similar, C had a few optimists on board, and the remaining hands in the room raised for D. When the question was fielded to the panel, they distributed themselves amongst the choices in a comparable proportion.

Nearly every participant in the room united in laughter when Astill revealed the correct answer: “We just don’t know.”

The introduction was a reference to the “zombie statistics” which have been circling the web, touting inaccurate numbers. But as difficult as those numbers have been to kill, the truth of the situation is just as complicated. The fact that we still don’t know how much land is actually owned by women in the world is reflective of the general state of knowledge we have on women’s activities.

Essentially, we don’t have enough information.

Esther Mwaura-Muiru, founder and coordinator for GROOTS Kenya, spoke about the importance of archiving the impact women currently have in their communities. A critical part of increasing women’s rights is in, “women making a track-record of what kinds of investments they are making on that land,” said Mwaura-Muiru.

She explained their work has found that, “when women have been able to utilize land properly they negotiate for joint-titling.” Giving women the tools to gather evidence for their contributions increased their political agency. When they have more control over land use, they are better able to tap into opportunities that contribute to their livelihoods, and the livelihoods of their families.

But assessing formal land ownership has not proved to be a silver-data-bullet for the zombie statistics, nor for agricultural development programs aiming towards increased gender equity. Mapping resource use—rather than strictly formal land tenure—amongst men and women increasingly shows that they each have different priorities and capabilities. According to Ruth Meinzen-Dick, a coordinator at CAPRi, the lack of data on women may be partially attributed to the creative and resourceful approaches women take as a result of their marginalization, which is not always as easily and readily quantifiable.

When a group of women and men in Cambodia were asked to provide a map of what kinds of resources they get from where, the women spent nearly three times as long drawing up their maps. The end product included “lots of detailed resources… using the interstitial spaces (for example roadsides and canal banks)… where there are lots of wild vegetables, or leafy greens that are high in nutrition or medicinal plants, resources that are often overlooked.”

On regional, national, and global scales, as the example of Cambodia illustrates, researchers don’t yet know exactly what activities women are participating in, and where those activities are taking place. If this information is proving to be critical to equipping them with the tools to demand their own equality, then it is in our interest to begin collecting it, and fast.

The title of the session, “This land is our land,” is a reference to the famous 1940s American folk song written by Woody Guthrie, which confronted the realities of displacement and landlessness in the Great Depression- and World War Two-era United States, and the artists’ dreams for a more egalitarian future.

This reference, as a part of the title of the session, is apt today when practitioners discuss equitable land rights in agricultural development. Overcoming these challenges will require the collective, coordinated efforts of NGOs, researchers, policy-makers, community members, and financiers—across sectorial boundaries and geographical borders.

As development programs, which increasingly aim to address gender inequity in their research methods and program implementation strategies, come back with positive correlations between healthy landscapes and gender-equitable tenure, the evidence becomes undeniable. Understanding and documenting women’s contributions to landscape health can increase their political and economic agency, helping not only them, but also the communities in which they work.

Moving forward, healthy ecosystems may be the ones where “this land is made for you and me.”