1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development, Social Policy and Development

Agrarian Change, Gender and Land Rights

  • Project from: 2000 to 2002


The past two decades have witnessed significant shifts in international development agendas and policies, marked by a resurgence of laissez-faire orthodoxies and a marked ambivalence, if not outright hostility, towards the developmental state. The debt crises of the early 1980s and the subsequent multilateral lending programmes provided a decisive opening for the international financial institutions to impose a neo-liberal agenda of fiscal restraint, open trade and capital accounts, and privatization on indebted developing countries.

Issues of agrarian change and rural development have been a palpable part of these policy shifts. The neoliberal attack on the post-World War Two consensus was built on a deep aversion to state-led import substituting industrialization, while agriculture featured as the centrepiece of the narrative, especially in national economies where agriculture formed a high proportion of GDP. Alleged “urban bias” was to be corrected by “getting prices right” for agriculture through various measures, such as exchange rate devaluation, abolishing export taxes, and reducing trade barriers, while tenure insecurity was to be tackled through land titling. These standard measures, it was argued, would restore agricultural export growth and improve rural incomes and livelihoods. At the same time, cutbacks in public expenditure outlays on agricultural input subsidies, marketing boards, and research and extension services (representing an inflow of resources into agriculture that was largely ignored by proponents of “urban bias”) were prescribed and justified on the grounds that the benefits were either captured by big farmers or squandered by state officials. Ironically, these public expenditure outlays were eroded at a time when they were most needed—when developing countries were being urged to open up their economies to global agricultural markets by intensifying their export thrust and exposing themselves to imports from countries that often provide generous agricultural subsidies to their farming sectors.

In the 1980s, the gender critique of neoliberalism pointed to the ways in which the “reproductive” economy was ignored by stabilization and structural adjustment policies. The cutbacks in public expenditure and the deterioration in social programmes in many countries implicitly assumed an infinitely elastic supply of female labour that would compensate for the shortfalls in state-financed social services. In the 1990s, however, especially given the growing concerns about the lack of agricultural supply response in sub-Saharan Africa, attention has shifted to women’s role in the sphere of agricultural production. Using neo-classical micro-economic analytical tools, it is being argued that gender inequalities in intra-household resource allocation are leading to “allocative inefficiencies” and a muted agricultural supply response. It is also being suggested that the absence of a market in land, and women’s inadequate land rights in particular, are leading to inefficiencies in resource use. Despite its many weaknesses, this genre of analysis has been taken up by mainstream policy institutions because it fits well with the overall orthodox, neo-classical position on African agriculture.

The 1990s have also been a period of monumental political transformations. The collapse of authoritarian regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, has given issues of rights and democracy a major impulse. The decade saw the growing size and influence of an international women’s movement, linked through sub-regional, regional and international networks and able to collaborate on issues of policy and agenda setting. This has coincided with the revival of national women’s movements, which in post-authoritarian settings in particular have found themselves in a position to press for political and legal reforms. An important component of these broader processes of democratisation, have been political and institutional reforms such as decentralization, which have revived and strengthened the institutions of local governance. While in some countries this has brought more women into government structures, questions remain as to how local, and indeed national, power relations feed into these local and community-based structures.

Inspired by these democratising impulses, a wide range of feminist groups and networks operating at national, regional and international levels, and influenced by the increasing use of rights language and instruments, have drawn attention to unequal land rights as an important mechanism through which female poverty and subordination is sustained and reproduced. Whether in the context of national debates on land tenure reform, rural social movement activism, or the political dynamics associated with decentralization and the competing claims over resources that this has given rise to, women’s interests in land have emerged as a contested issue, often exposing tensions and divisions within civil society ranks. In some contexts, however, the debate has become polarized with one side pushing for women’s unambiguous rights to land as a “good” policy intervention (because it is presumed to enhance their intra-household bargaining power irrespective of context), while the other side opposes women’s land rights categorically because it is seen as the thin wedge that is being used by pro-liberalization lobbies to open up indigenous systems of land tenure to market forces and foreign commercial interests. This is a dangerous dichotomy, which precludes the kind of nuanced and contextualised analysis that is needed to identify situations where inadequate access to land constitutes a serious constraint on women’s agricultural enterprises. Nor can it facilitate appropriate policy suggestions to enhance greater justice with respect to resource allocation for rural women—both as wives/daughters within male-dominated households and as members of vulnerable social classes and communities that face the risk of entitlement failure in the context of economic liberalization.

The contributions to this project critically reflect on the broad set of issues that have been raised in both the academic literature as well as in policy debates on the interface between gender and land. Different aspects of the gender and land question are explored by the research team. The analysis that they bring to bear on the subject is informed by different understandings of gender relations and the most important arenas within which those relations operate. Yet despite their crucial conceptual and methodological variations, and their different entry points, together they constitute a strong statement on the importance of taking the contextual specificities of the gender and land question seriously.

A selection of the papers prepared for this project have been published as a double special issue of the Journal of Agrarian Change (Vol. 3, No.1 and No. 2, January and April 2003). The collection of papers has also been published in an edited volume entitled "Agrarian Change, Gender and Land Rights" (Blackwells, 2003).

Some of the research findings are being published in the UNRISD Programme Paper series, select "Publications" on the right to view the papers.

Several of the commissioned papers for this project are also available as draft papers and can be viewed by clicking on “Unpublished papers” on the right.

Other related UNRISD work on issues of agrarian change and gender has been published in the edited volume “Shifting Burdens: Gender and Agrarian Change under Neoliberalism” (Kumarian Press, 2002).