From Marginalisation to Empowerment

Women and girls have long been discriminated against in terms of access to, ownership of, and control over land and property. This has not only disadvantaged them economi­cally, but has also eroded their dignity, human rights and decision-making power.

A new report by ActionAid has found a clear and significant positive correlation between women’s secure land ownership, control or access, and their empowerment, particularly their ability to withstand food crises and fight hunger. It also confirms that empowerment is a non-linear process of change rather than a targeted or defined outcome and involves complex contexts of culture, values, knowledge, relationships, attitude and behaviour/practice. This study gathered evidence from rural women in Guatemala, India and Sierra Leone.

Recommendations call for, inter alia, political will in ensuring a gender perspective in all land policies and the strengthening of social capital and collective voice.

The full report can be downloaded here: The Executive Summary is reproduced below for ease of reference.

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ActionAid, From marginalisation to empowerment: The potential of land rights to contribute to gender equality – observations from Guatemala, India and Sierra Leone, February, 2013

Executive Summary

This report examines three communities of rural women – in Guatemala, India and Sierra Leone – who have secured access [1] to land either for farming or to live on [2]. The main purpose of the study is to establish the links between secure land rights and women’s empowerment broadly, and in particular women’s ability to fight hunger and withstand food crises and shocks. The research explored the question, ‘How important is secure access to and control over land as an enabling condition for women’s overall empowerment?’

The study probes the theory of change that suggests that having land rights increases women’s individual and cumulative empowerment. Empowerment refers to women’s real or perceived ability to control or change different aspects of their personal, social, political and economic environment.

An objective reading of findings gathered from rural women and their relationship with land suggests that empowerment is a relative term, and a progressive process. When a woman can claim a small area of wasteland as her own, where before she had none, when she is able to grow some food where before she relied solely on handouts and relief, this definitely marks personal progress – but might not necessarily equate with her socio-political or economic empowerment. Further empowerment might come through the training, inputs and support she might access in order to optimise the use and productive capacity of the land. As awareness and capacity increase, so might a woman’s interest in working with others to further their individual and common rights. Acting on this interest to mobilise social and political capital through collective action implies and abets even higher levels of empowerment.

The study’s findings offer a detailed account of the link between land rights and empowerment, an innovative venture given the notable lack of literature and evidence linking these issues. In this sense, the study aims to build a better understanding of this relationship. To understand and assess empowerment, 92 rural, marginalised women in the three countries were asked about the changes that land ownership had made in their lives. The women were also invited to articulate their own sense of the empowerment that came with their access to, control over or ownership of land. The women gave their feedback on indicators of change relevant to:

a. Food security and nutrition, such as control over personal food consumption and nutrition

b. Personal and social empowerment, such as control over personal decisions and mobility

c. Economic empowerment, such as their ability to leverage land rights for loans, savings, insurance and other financial instruments and ability to make decisions over what they produce

d. Political empowerment, such as participation in political processes at different levels

The intimate glimpses of the processes of change evidenced in the stories collected in Guatemala, India and Sierra Leone point to the complexity of what the process of empowerment involves for these women. The research confirms that empowerment is a non-linear process of change rather than a targeted or defined outcome. Its interpretation is subject to complex contexts of culture, values, knowledge, relationships and behaviours; it is constantly negotiated and contested on an individual basis and at household and community levels.

The analysis reveals that having rights to own, access or control land does indeed mark progress for these women, and particularly in ways that are distinctly related to their contexts and cultures. In most cases, access to or control of land increased the probability of the women achieving their aspirations and ambi­tions, and improved their sense of empowerment. Many of the women cited the significance of ownership, access or control of land in terms of the value of land as a productive resource, as security, as legacy, as a symbol of status, and as a social or political mobilising force.

In fighting for their rights to claim, and control land, some women are de facto empowering themselves, sometimes quite dramatically so. Further, once they feel secure about their access to land some feel able to do and accomplish more – not just for themselves, but for their children first and then their communities. Loosely defined, land offers women a platform for action, a sense of status, and opens up possibilities for participating in nation-building – all of which can be interpreted as empowerment.

However, ultimate empowerment does not come through land rights alone. Empowerment is a gradual process that comes from being able to use the land for production. Being able to use land for production requires training, input and support (both economic and social). Participating in training, and being aware of and using different inputs and support are empowering. Empowerment thus starts with the fight for and then control over the land, and then grows with inputs and support. It culminates in being able to use the land productively and work with others to further increase production.

The key messages that emerged from the case studies are synthesised according to findings on:

a) Land ownership is not empowering if it is insecure, if the land is insufficient or infertile This section of the study reveals that securing parcels of land for cultivation is a process that is fraught with con­tinuous struggle for many women. The reasons include tenuous ability to maintain their ownership, control or access, to extract productive value from poor-quality land, issues related to legal processes of tenure, and control of decision-making by male community leaders or family members. This is an area, therefore, where women’s individual and collective agency and struggles require more support in the form of solidarity and campaigning.

b) Expressions of individual empowerment Many women felt that having access to, control over or ownership of land allowed them to exercise greater choice and decision-making, and contribute to their own wellbeing and that of their families and communities. The process of stewarding land and its productive capacity fosters a sense of pride and self-worth. Women who produced more (not necessarily for sale) felt a much greater sense of self-worth than those whose relationship to the land was limited to it being just an asset. 

c) Expressions of cumulative empowerment and solidarity ‘Cumulative,’ or ‘collective’ empower­ment extends beyond individual empowerment and the private domain when a woman collaborates with others to seek change that may benefit the wider community. Compared to landless women, women who have access to, control over and ownership of land are more politically aware, more active in public forums, movements or associations, and more engaged in contributing to collective action and voice – and not only in those relevant to the land. This kind of collective engagement, in turn, often brought a feeling of greater empowerment and sense of solidarity that stems from working collaboratively while leveraging and building their skills and capacities in mobilising around individual and collective interests and rights – sometimes referred to as social capital.

d) How land security empowers women The stronger women’s claim over land, the greater their par­ticipation in the household and community and the fulfilment of other rights. The section looks at women’s views of what land means to them and the ways in which having land enhances their social position and empowers them.

Interpreting empowerment: Domains and spheres

This section offers insight into how the women themselves construe and experience empowerment or dis­empowerment in the context of their unique cultures and circumstances. The women gave feedback on the factors and features that, for them, represent empowerment and disempowerment in four distinct domains:

* In the public domain, feelings of disempowerment stem from varying degrees of disenfranchisement, low social capital and minimal political representation.

* In contrast, empowerment in the public domain often meant greater awareness of or involvement in securing their rights and interests.

* In the private domain, the women described feelings of disempowerment as stemming from limited choices and the inability to take decisions on their own or to act with autonomy on decisions ranging from best use of the land to use of contraception. They cited a combination of cultural taboos, sec­ondary status within the household, states of fear and insecurity, low self-value and disproportionately heavy burdens of work as disempowering factors.

* Empowerment in the private domain, in contrast, ascribes feelings of inner transformation and increased worth and potential. The women feel smarter, more visible, and have feelings of greater mobility and self-determination. Even if they do not yet feel interested in or able to change the social or community status quo, they feel they can make more choices and effect change around food con­sumption as well as about the future and the education of their children.

These findings tell us that, in these women’s views, land access in itself is not empowering if such access is insecure, if the land is insufficient or infertile, if their control is constrained, or if they lack the resources, support or input to maximise its productive value. The full range of economic, social and political empowerment takes place when women can extend their choices and decisions beyond their gendered household roles to include how land is used; what is planted; how their priorities and interests are represented at local government level; and how equipped they are to respond to pressures on arable land, increased industrialisation of agriculture and commercialisation of land and natural resources, as well as the implications of climate change on land use and productivity.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Towards this, the report concludes that while there is a clear and profound positive correlation between women’s land ownership, control or access and their empowerment, particularly their ability to withstand food crises and fight hunger, the links would become more robust and enduring if the following recommen­dations were achieved:

* There is genuine political will and resources to support their secure land access along with equal valuing of indigenous inputs and local production methods.

* The collective voice on community concerns supports, carries and gives voice to women’s priorities. Women’s agency becomes more robust within a strong community group or as members of a collective voice.

* Existing land claims are protected, with proper surveys and documentation. As part of gender-sensitive land reforms, national land audits and publicly accessible land registries should be established, and reinforced by community mapping programmes that engage women.

* Women receive training and support in agriculture methods and production.

* Civil society and human rights organisations work with rural women and their representative organisations to build their social capital and collective voice to hold governments and investors to account.

* Land rights movements encourage and support more women members to represent women’s priorities and needs at local elections.

* Governments stipulate and commit the necessary budgetary support for rural investment models that increase local food production and improve land stewardship.

* Governments commit to policy changes that promote water-harvesting farming methods and other small-scale water management practices to ensure that small-scale farming can be optimised.


1.      Access to land does not mean autonomy over choices of land use, as is made clear in the case studies.

2.      The three constituencies comprise: once displaced indigenous rural communities who have occupied farms and reclaimed land in Guatemala; untouchable Dalit women in India facing deeply embedded cultural barriers to their land claims; and women living with HIV in Sierra 
Leone where their illness compounds their social marginalisation.