Skip to main content

“Women’s land rights has become a key question in South Africa and globally, but how many women actually own the land,” is the question that Professor Bina Agarwal posed during a public lecture she delivered on June 13 2023. The renowned economist and academic, whose work marked a key moment in moving from women and development to gender and development, spoke to the many existing hurdles to women’s land rights despite some victories over the years.

Hosted by the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), Professor Agarwal contextualised some of the historical and contemporary work around women’s land rights. She posed thought-provoking questions for the online audience about the gaps that exist between law and practice with regard to women’s land rights. 

The session was convened by Professor Ruth Hall, the South African Research Chair in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at PLAAS and forms part of the greater work being done by the institute on women’s land rights. 

Under the title “Obstacles to Women’s Land Rights and Ways Forward”, Professor Agarwal shared findings from her groundbreaking research in India. Currently a Professor of Development Economics and Environment at the University of Manchester, Agarwal has also led prominent economics societies, including the International Society for Ecological Economics and the International Association for Feminist Economics. Her acclaimed book, A Field of One’s Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia, has become a cornerstone of the discourse on women’s land rights, inspiring countless individuals engaged in this arena.

In her introduction, Professor Hall paid homage to the significance of Professor Agarwal’s contributions, emphasising the pivotal role she has played in advancing the understanding of why women’s land rights matter.

During the 45-minute lecture, Professor Agarwal briefly recounted her encounter with South African women during a site visit in KwaZulu-Natal more than 10 years ago, facilitated by the late Sizani Ngubane from the Association for Rural Advancement. She went on to vividly portray the decades-long struggle of Indian women in their fight for land rights. Her analysis centred on her own work on the factors underpinning the disparities between gender equality in law and in practice.

Agarwal said many women had never even contemplated the idea of land ownership, and this profoundly influenced her work because it exposed not only the lack of rights for women to own land but also what she termed ‘expectation adjustment’, namely that expectations were calibrated to a perceived horizon of what was possible. And in many societies, the idea of women having independent property rights, especially to land, was beyond possibility.

Agarwal traversed the Indian experience over the past century, where the struggle for property and land rights intersected with political participation and the right to vote, echoing parallels in Western contexts. Despite fierce resistance, three “Hindu Code” bills were eventually enacted in the 1950s, granting women a considerable degree of equality in law. India’s intricate system of inheritance laws has distinct laws based on religion, property type, and region — which makes the Indian experience relevant to African contexts where legal pluralism exists and where statutory and customary laws and institutions coexist, often in uneasy ways.

Agarwal’s research found that when daughters, traditionally the most disinherited family members, receive increased property shares, this often leads to a reduction in their mothers’ shares – rather than their brothers’. What may pass as increased rights for women, then, may, in fact, just distribute unequal shares among women of different generations. 

What can be done? Professor Agarwal outlined, in conclusion, some guidelines for enhancing women’s access to land. She emphasised the importance of awareness of laws, drawing from her experiences in South Africa, as well as the need for legal and social support. Based on her research and observations in India, she advocated group farming as a means to facilitate improved ownership, rights, and bargaining power for women. She also spoke to the need for the necessity of robust data for conducting thorough research that exposes gaps and shortcomings in legal frameworks and practices. 

In open discussion, the audience consisting of nearly 100 people from across the African continent and beyond, responded with questions and comments. Striking parallels were drawn between the historical and contemporary positioning of South Africa and India in the pursuit of gender equality. South Africa’s lack of adequate data on the gender gap in land rights was observed, as was the urgency to work with statistics bureaux across Africa to generate the requisite data to track, for example, progress towards the SDGs.

Given South Africa’s constrained land reforms of the past 30 years, the concept of group farming was scrutinised to gauge its viability in the South African context. While learning lessons from around the world, context-specific solutions are needed which take account of tradition, culture, religion, law, and governance norms.

The public lecture was co-sponsored by the DSI/NRF SARChI Chair and NELGA and was put together with special help from Professor Moenieba Isaacs.

Watch public lecture