UNRISD at the UN Sub-Commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights
26 Jul 2004
Presentation made by UNRISD Research Co-ordinator Shahra Razavi at the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights; Social Forum, on Poverty, Rural Poverty and Human Rights, held on 22-23 July 2004, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.
Mr. Chairperson, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to thank you, Mr. Chairperson, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, for extending an invitation to UNRISD to address this session of the Social Forum of the Sub-Commission on the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights. The subject of my presentation today will be Women’s Access to Assets as Part of Strategy to Reduce Poverty.
Throughout the 1990s land tenure institutions were the subject of reform in a wide range of countries. International donors have been heavily involved in the design of these reforms in many cases.
The likely impacts of these policy proposals and reforms on women—as land users and claimants—have sparked considerable interest among women’s rights advocates. Indeed, one of the distinct features of land tenure reforms in the 1990s, compared to the wave of land reforms that swept the developing world in the 1950s and 1960s, has been the presence and voice of women’s rights advocates in the present era as an important segment of civil society making a strong case for women as legitimate and equal subjects, deserving equal rights to access critical assets such as land.
This in itself has been a remarkable achievement, contesting the widely-held notion of the unitary household with men/father/husband as its one and only legitimate and altruistic “head” in whose name all titles must be registered. More importantly, the moral claims for seeing women as subjects with equal rights have been followed up in recent years with considerable progress in making formal laws pertaining to land more gender-equitable (e.g. Latin America).
The increasing visibility and legitimacy of women as subjects with rights and claims notwithstanding, it is becoming increasing clear that translating these moral and legal rights to land into substantive and meaningful entitlements that can lift women and their dependents out of poverty is being forcefully constrained by at least three critical policy and institutional obstacles that require serious attention.
One major source of tension and obstacle has come from trying to strengthen women’s independent access to land within the largely pro-market property rights regime that is currently hegemonic (and pushed by powerful global institutions on many developing states). There is little evidence to show that land markets are capable of delivering equitable and just access to land and substantial evidence documenting the contrary, i.e. that in the development of private property regimes of any kind, resource-constrained women in particular have tended to lose the rights they once had. Hence, while legislation recognizing women’s independent rights to land may signify some gains at the intra-household level (vis-à-vis husbands and brothers), it is the broader context of liberalization that is increasing the risk of land alienation as entire families and communities lose their rights to powerful national and global corporations and individuals speculating and investing in land markets.
The second major obstacle that currently confronts many small farmers in the global South is the deadly combination of: a) eroding state support for agriculture (through subsidized agricultural inputs, infrastructure, irrigation) and b) exposure to world agricultural and commodity markets, as a result of trade liberalization, where small farmers from poorer countries have to compete with many rich country producers who are enjoying generous state support and subsidies, and where commodity prices have been volatile and falling.
There is ample evidence of distress of small farmers in many different regions (the most dramatic being the recent spate of suicides by cotton farmers in Andhra Pradesh, India, as a result of sudden collapse in global commodity prices), and strong indications that women, men and children from farming households are diversifying their income sources away from farming, in search of survival under conditions of increasing economic stress. Some of these issues have stalled North-South negotiations on agriculture trade policies: in Cancun in September 2003, Southern governments strongly contested the agricultural policy framework proposed by the EU and US and demanded a fair agriculture trading system that would address current distortions that favour the North. UNCTAD has drawn attention to the urgent need for an international commodity policy if poverty reduction is to be achieved.
Hence, access to land without a developmental state that pursues a strong agrarian policy (with a judicious combination of domestic support and protection from international market vagaries) is unlikely to lead to poverty reduction, especially for women who have the added burden of unpaid domestic and care work so essential for human well-being.
The third policy trend that deserves some attention is the move towards decentralization, and the consensus across the political spectrum that sees local management of land and local-level “customary” institutions as the most appropriate site for land allocation and dispute resolution. But there is very little discussion as to how these local level systems might work in practice. In some contexts risks of elite capture are very real. The revival of so-called “traditional” authorities and the devolution of power to informal community based institutions pose huge risks for women in particular. In some contexts where such devolution has happened there are indications that poor rural women are finding “local justice” highly discriminatory. The extent to which local level institutions are democratic and “woman friendly” needs far greater policy attention and empirical scrutiny.
As important as assets/land are for poverty reduction and reducing power inequalities, this should not lead to a policy blindness that ignores the critical role of employment and wages for very poor rural women. Research in many developing countries finds that employment on large-scale state farms and even agribusiness farms can be the source of far more reliable and secure wage earnings for very poor women than what is available to them through small-scale farms and other forms of self-employment. This of course goes against the current policy thrust that sees “micro credit” and land as the assets that poor people should utilize to become small entrepreneurs and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. In fact employment has pretty much fallen off the development agenda and hardly appears as an issue in the Millennium Development Goals. If, however, women’s poverty is to be seriously tackled then employment objectives must be given the priority that they deserve. And this would mean a certain questioning of the current macroeconomic agendas that stubbornly prioritise inflation control over employment creation.
I thank you again, Mr. Chairperson, for giving me the possibility to address this session of the Social Forum of the Sub-Commission on Protection and Promotion of Human Rights, and wish you every success in the continuation of your work.
Presentation made on 23 July 2004 by Shahra Razavi, UNRISD Research Co-ordinator.