Women and land, property and housing

Rights to land, housing and property are essential to women’s equality and wellbeing. Women’s rights in, access to and control over land, housing and property is a determining factor in women’s living conditions especially in rural economies, essential to women and their children’s daily survival, economic security and physical safety. Despite the importance of these rights for women and women headed households, women still disproportionally lack security of tenure.

This is often due to the fact that registration of property is done in a man’s name; the father, husband or brother. In case of separation or divorce, the man often retains rights to the property or land whereas the woman becomes homeless or will have to share the property with her in-laws without gaining control or rights over it. Discriminatory legislation on and lack of control over property, land and housing also mean that women are excluded from community decision making processes that are led by men who normally are the landowners. In rural communities, ownership of land determines both social status and the way in which control is exercised over a household’s resources and income. Women’s disadvantaged economic position in this regard creates a structural dependence on men for access to resources, which in turn can subject women to insecurity and violence.

Cultural and religious practices, as well as customary practices, also can have an impact on women’s rights related to land, property and housing. These practices often exist in parallel with statutory laws.  These often discriminate against women in the fields of property, land and housing and sometimes trump national laws.  In addition, the interpretation of statutory laws is influenced by customary laws or practices to the detriment of women’s rights. Women often have no access to participation in decision making with respect to land, property and housing even though these issues affect them directly and seriously. Gender bias within the official administration also leads to the exclusion of women from decision making on policies and programmes on housing and land. 

Women suffering from multiple forms of discrimination – e.g. older women, women with disabilities, women living with HIV/AIDS or women belonging to minority communities or indigenous groups- face additional obstacles in accessing land and property. For instance, widows, often older women, in some places are blamed for killing their husbands by infecting them with HIV/AIDS and in-laws use this as a justification to dispossess them and evict them. Women then lose access to productive resources which were all the more important in the context of their need for medical care.

UDHR article 17 (1) and (2) establishes the right of everyone to property regardless of sex, UDHR article 25 the right to an adequate standard of living including housing and to security in the event of a lack of livelihood, and UDHR article 16 states that everyone should have equal rights as to marriage, both during the marriage and during its dissolution. ICCPR’s broad non-discrimination provision article 26 also outlaws legislation or policy that would discriminate against women, including in the fields of property, housing and land rights. ICESCR article 11 guarantees the right to adequate housing.  Furthermore, the CEDAW Convention specifically requests States to undertake all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against rural women, and to guarantee their enjoyment of adequate living conditions including adequate housing (CEDAW article 14.2). CEDAW article 16.1 requests States to undertake all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family, and in particular to ensure the same rights for spouses in respect of the ownership, acquisition, management, administration, enjoyment and disposition of property.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action includes commitments by States to “undertake legislation and administrative reforms to give women equal rights with men to economic resources, including access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, credit, inheritance, natural resources and appropriate new technology.” The UN Habitat II Conference in Istanbul in 1996 and its Istanbul Declaration and Habitat Agenda provides a Plan of Action on rights, including rights of women in human settlements development. It commits governments to assure security of tenure and equal access to land of all people, including women and people living in poverty.

Feature stories