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Empowering women, reducing child poverty and enabling women to inherit

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:30


Kate Bird – Research Associate, ODI and CPRC

Fati Alhassan – Director, Grassroots Sisterhood Foundation & the Huairou Commission, Ghana

Angela Langenkamp - Gender and Youth Expert, German Technical Cooperation (GTZ)

Meryem Aslan - Country Director, UNIFEM


Andy Norton – Research Director, ODI

Andrew Norton began the event with an introduction to the Chronic Poverty Research Centre (CPRC) and its work on the intergenerational transmission of poverty. He explained that he had recently joined ODI as its Director of Research, and was excited at finding the many interesting studies being conducted at ODI.

Having long been interested in poverty research focussed on assets and asset frameworks, he found the intergenerational transmission of poverty a fresh and important perspective. With that he introduced Kate Bird, an ODI Research Associate and the lead researcher on CPRC’s work on the intergenerational transmission of poverty.

Kate Bird’s presentation provided a broad overview of the issues surrounding how access and ownership of land are important for women’s economic empowerment and their ability to invest in the next generation. Land was identified as a major asset, especially in developing countries where it is often the primary source of wealth, social status and power. Moreover, it can produce an economic surplus and be used as collateral against formal sector borrowing thereby enabling investment, including in the next generation. Land reduces vulnerability to shocks by improving resilience and the ability to bounce back to negative events, limiting the need to resort to adverse coping strategies such as withdrawing children from school or reducing consumption. That said, mere ownership is not enough as owners also have to have the skills and capabilities to realise land’s potential, and land can be a poverty trap if it is barely sufficient to meet subsistence needs.

Despite women’s importance to agriculture, they only own 1-2 % of individually titled land. Instead women access land predominantly through their male relatives. Some argue that a lack of women’s land ownership does not matter as women have these access rights, but this assumes that a woman’s extended family will care for her and her children and this is not always the case. In addition, there is evidence that female-headed households invest more in food security and education thereby improving the chances of the next generation.

Land ownership is also important to women as it influences the conjugal contract i.e. the basis of their relations with their husband and their ability to exercise agency (making decisions on their own and following them through freely). Not owning land influences investment decisions and contributes to the intergenerational transmission of poverty over the long term.

Many factors influence women’s land ownership, including:

1)      Norms surrounding marriage e.g. patrilocality, which reduces ability to control land in a woman’s natal village, and can inhibit a woman’s right to seek divorce if that would entail losing access to her children.

2)      In polygamous households, the divisions between a man’s wives and his children can disempower women.

3)      In unregistered marriages, widows or divorcees have no legal rights and are dependent on customary rights for access to any jointly owned land. Rights for cohabiting partners vary between countries and can depend on the length of time spent living together, but in some countries women in cohabiting relationships have no rights at all.

It is not just women’s rights that influence their empowerment, but also their perception of these rights. Research from Ethiopia suggests that women’s expectations of what consequences will follow divorce influence their sense of control of their lives now, their bargaining position within their marriage and their long term investment decisions. In this context it is significant that new legislation on divorcees’ rights is yet to influence women’s perceptions of the likely consequences of divorce, thus demonstrating a possible enforcement gap and the lag between legislation and events on the ground – women need to see inheritance rights in practice before their attitudes change.

In Uganda, family responsibilities have changed in HIV/AIDS affected households with children increasingly bearing the burden of care. They are also assuming responsibility for land and other assets at an earlier age, and this in combination with the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS increases their vulnerability to asset grabbing. This exemplifies how stigma can entrench inequality along gender and generational lines, and perpetuate the intergenerational transmission of poverty.

Teenage girls were identified as a particularly vulnerable group, with access to assets particularly biased against them as were decisions not to invest in their education. This in turn limits their ability to invest in the next generation. The studies on which these findings are based are all included in the CPRC report “Stemming Girls Chronic Poverty: Catalysing development change by building just social institutions.”.

The link between women’s asset ownership and child poverty is that asset ownership supports women’s economic empowerment and their investment decisions including in their children’s education. These decisions are both context dependent (e.g. in Kenya there is a trade off between investing in livestock or education for your children) and gendered (with the property rights of married women influencing decisions over how much to invest in female children).

Addressing these issues requires changing policy and practice. There is a need to make inheritance more equitable, which will involve legal and customary practice reform. This in turn requires advocacy around children’s and women’s inheritance rights. Reform needs to proceed carefully and be context sensitive as evidence from land titling interventions shows they can backfire. One starting point could be to look at what customary practice was in the past when it might have protected women better, as the Grassroots Sisterhood Foundation has been doing in Ghana. This could be done in tandem by closing down loopholes in marriage and inheritance legislation that enable inequitable outcomes.

When considering land ownership reforms, it is important to look at inheritance and marriage together, as well as thinking about assets other than land e.g. business assets, and thinking about ways to ensure that newly important assets (for example education, business assets) are distributed more evenly. As the long term objective is supporting women’s empowerment, asset ownership approaches must be complemented by policies on education, social protection and micro-finance.

Fati Alhassan is the founder and director of Grassroots Sisterhood Foundation (GSF), Ghana, which is a member of the Huairou Commission network and works on a number of women’s rights issues.

Fati began by saying that the issues raised in Kate Bird’s overview tallied closely with her experience of working in three regions in northern Ghana. In these regions, most women’s rights issues are determined by cultural practices and attitudes towards what a woman is. Women are regarded as family property due to the high prices paid for brides, and this is reflected in widows’ limited rights. An example of this is that widows face pressure to marry the brothers of a deceased spouse and have children with him to continue the family. Women are seen as part of their husband’s family property, which complicates inheritance as how can property inherit property? That said, women do have the chance to benefit from property they have acquired independently e.g. livestock. The perception of woman as property presents significant barriers to daughters inheriting anything as they are seen as the future property of someone else and so not worth investing in. The only things they can inherit are the relatively valueless possessions of their mother e.g. cooking utensils, whilst sons inherit any valuable property such as livestock or land. Poverty is therefore transmitted down the female line.

To counteract these structural barriers to women’s empowerment, the GSF has been working with women and trying to change mindsets over a period of time. They carry out mapping exercises within communities to identify the issues women face, including from customary practice, before identifying past or present customary practices that protect women and seeking to promote those. This involves working with chiefs, clan heads and other traditional leaders to arrive at positive outcomes for women e.g. ensuring continued use rights of a deceased husband’s land even if they do not inherit it. Working within customary law is necessary because, despite good legislation protecting women’s rights, low literacy rates and high court costs mean these rights are rarely known about and even less enforced due to the high time and resource cost of bringing a case to court.

The problem of limited women’s awareness of their formal rights is compounded by the laws being written in English and high illiteracy rates, even in people’s local language. The GSF is therefore using women chiefs and ‘queen mothers’ as a link to chiefs to raise important issues with these traditional authorities and act as intermediaries with communities. This has led to local dialogues with communities and monthly fora with chiefs that provide a space for the challenges facing women to be raised and heard. The GSF also makes extensive use of the media to raise awareness of the issues and develop public support.

The issue of inheritance goes hand in hand with physical and mental abuse of women and complicates widows’ and divorcees’ decisions over whether to stay with their husband’s family or go. Widows trying to leave with what they are entitled to often experience violence, so the GSF has trained community watchdogs to identify women who are at risk of such violence and refer them to legal organisations who can help them. They also carry out awareness raising workshops on women’s rights so that the women are less excluded from decisions over buying and selling land.

A major element of the GSF’s work is peer exchanges between women who have been exiled from their communities so as to give them hope by linking them with groups who have successfully achieved redress. A significant problem in Ghana is where women are accused of witchcraft in order to force them from their communities and disinherit them. The GSF links these unfortunate women with other women who have had the same experience. By talking together, women can share advice and discuss possible responses so that they are able to make informed decisions about what to do.

Women’s problems with land ownership and inheritance are compounded by the rise in land prices. Counteracting this requires more financial support and access to finance for women; supporting ownership through titling; and gaining rights, livelihoods and improved standards of living for women though dialogue with chiefs. The GSF has also contributed to the review of Ghana’s constitution so as to enshrine women’s property and inheritance rights in the constitution and to stop their identification as property. In Ghana as in many places, women seeking independence need support and organisations like the GSF need support from international partners to bring about these necessary reforms.

Angela Langenkamp leads the GTZ bilateral German development programme focusing on the Millenium Development Goals. She has extensive experience of working on gender and child rights issues and worked in Kenya for 15 years.

Angela’s presentation provided an insight into GTZ work on issues related to women’s inheritance rights, particularly at the grassroots level. This work includes the analysis of Islamic law and customary law for women’s rights and then comparing the legal provision with day-to-day realities. They then work to identify ways of ensuring women enjoy the rights they are entitled to e.g. ensuring women in Egypt receive identity cards that enable them to claim their inheritance rights. These solutions can then be applied in other countries e.g. in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami when women were marginalised and unable to exercise their property rights due to a lack of identity cards. In this context, GTZ combined the identity card programme with raising awareness of the importance of registering marriages to enable women and children to claim their rights later on.

Transferring solutions between contexts relates to GTZ’s transfer and application of knowledge links from research with applications in the field. They organised a competition to promote dissemination of gender-related research and practice findings amongst GTZ networks.

Women need to know their rights and often do not so GTZ instituted a gender law library with the World Bank to document women’s economic rights around the world e.g. on property and inheritance rights. Documenting the presence or absence of these rights can then guide bilateral negotiations with countries to promote the adoption of legislation that will close gaps in women’s formal rights.

GTZ works through German networks to promote women’s empowerment as well as through international platforms such as the International Donor Committee on Enterprise Development (DCED) whom they engaged with to identify more effective donor practices e.g. a DCED meeting in 2007 had no mention of gender issues so GTZ organised a 1-day meeting with the committee to highlight gender perspectives and ensure that the issues were included in the conference outputs.

It was GTZ research that produced the statistic that only 1-2% of individually titled land around the world belongs to women. They have also looked at national practices at local levels e.g. in Kenya many agricultural workers are women but they have very little access to land. Their involvement with DCED in 2007 led to the Women’s Enterprise Development Network which focuses on women’s empowerment and the role bilateral donors can play.

Promoting women’s empowerment requires continuous research and acting on research findings through policy reform. This involves producing publications for other development organisations and practitioners, as well as training events involving state officials, donors and other NGOs for on the ground training, for which GTZ works closely with ODI.  They also produce good practice notes for OECD members.

Meryem Aslan is the Regional Programme Director at UNIFEM and has a long track record of working on gender violence.

Meryem began by thanking all the researchers involved in the CPRC/ODI one-day conference on Inheritance and the Intergenerational Transmission of Poverty held on 11th October 2010 for their important work. She continued by describing how the UN works towards anti-discrimination and the elimination of violence against women within the framework of various international agreements e.g. the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the Beijing Platform for Action. When engaging with member states, Meryem to unite members’ goals with international aspirations of equality for all and equal opportunities for men and women to fulfil their potential. Much of the research evidence raised at the one-day conference highlighted how discrimination continued to prevent women from realising their potential and would go on to inform UN policy.

UNIFEM approaches the issue of inheritance within the frameworks of legal and judicial reform as well as economic empowerment. This entails a governance approach that includes state apparatuses and their relations with citizens of different gender, ethnic and age groups. UNIFEM works at all levels from the international to the community. At the international level, there will be a new issue of Progress of the World’s Women coming out next year. This journal is published by UNIFEM every two years and the coming issue will focus on gender and justice with reference to inheritance rights, inequalities in which are reflected in the following statistics: 58% of women have no access to land in Sub-Saharan Africa, around 50% in South Asia, and 50-60% in the Middle East, although the situation is better Latin America and Europe.

The issues are also debated at the global level e.g. at the recent (October, 2010) Millennium Development Goals meeting, in the General Assembly and at Council meetings. These debates help push interested members states to work a bit harder to act on their stated intention and increase equality. That said, the situation is dire with forecasts predicting that by 2015, 1.5-2 billion people will be landless of which 2/3 will be women.

At the national level, the interaction of national legislation with international aspirations is important – women need a legal framework that protects their equal rights with men. Providing this legal framework sends a message from states to citizens that this is a serious issues that the state is committed to addressing. UNIFEM works with states and civil society organisations to analyse laws from a gender perspective. They have done so in many countries including Afghanistan, Kenya, and Sudan amongst others. Mapping a country’s legal codes in this way identifies gaps in the legal protection of women in areas such as marriage, inheritance, customary practice and property rights etc. Having identified these gaps, they then create a platform for civil society and governments to interact and negotiate, as well as creating spaces for citizens to renegotiate their rights. That said, legal reforms are insufficient if they are not supported by rigorous implementation and enforcement of laws. Many of UNIFEM’s programmes therefore work with the judiciary and police to promote enforcement. They also look at national development strategies, proposed programmes of action and budgets to ensure protection of women is integrated into all areas of government action including education, health, welfare etc.

At the community level, initiatives are geared towards achieving change in households and with traditional leaders, religious leaders and sub-national government systems e.g. local administrators. UNIFEM works with them to change attitudes, behaviour, concepts and approaches to women and women’s issues in general. Specific projects on inheritance rights include:

1)      A Women’s legal aid centre in Tanzania. This would help widows engaged in court cases over property seizures by relatives.

2)      Education centre in Kenya

3)      AIDS support organisation in Uganda which works with HIV patients to raise awareness of the importance of women’s property and the consequences of negative treatment for landless women.

4)      Lawyers collective in India that does public litigation.

5)      Lawyers collective in Kenya that has been addressing the issue of a husband’s death leading to the ‘cleansing’ of the widow. This requires her to sleep with a family member or a hired ‘consultant’. The state takes no action against this on the grounds that it is a ‘traditional’ act but interview research with widows found that they feel powerless to refuse this cleansing as to do so would mean they lose all property rights and have to leave the area. UNIFEM therefore worked with a legal organisation in Canada to start public litigation as they felt it was the only way to address the issue.

Kenya is not the only country where widows are passed between family members and the practice is particularly problematic in areas with high HIV rates. Despite identifying the problem and initiating legal action, the impact of this action is likely to be slow. This highlights the importance of focussing on how to maximise impacts as quickly as possible to ensure the protection of women. UNIFEM has therefore been putting together a research note that focuses on issues concerning violence against women and includes examples of effective interventions from across the world. Beyond this, there is a need to bring together different actors and interventions to ensure swift and effective action.

Andrew Norton then concluded the presentations by thanking all the speakers. He identified a common theme between the presentations that formal structures are necessary but insufficient to protect women’s rights due to the dominance of customary law and power structures at the local level. He also connected the growing problem of disinheritance and asset grabbing over the last 10 years with growing pressures on land and natural resources. This increases the incentive to exploit windows of opportunity in a woman’s lifecourse such as divorce or death of a husband to dispossess her of her rights and assets. As the pressure on land and natural resources continues to grow, it is an ever more urgent issue to understand what can be done to strengthen women’s capacity to claim and hold resources at these key times. He concluded by noting that it would be interesting to test the research findings presented in urban and peri-urban areas, before opening the discussion to questions.


1)      What are the research findings specifically with regard to older women and the gender dimensions of aging?

2)      Looking at the CPRC’s Gender Report, Recommendation 5 of this report discusses collective issues and approaches but does this not clash with recent international donor interest in individual titling?

3)      What is the interaction of Islamic law with women’s inheritance and are their any programmes for women empowerment in rich countries e.g. poor women in Saudi Arabia suffer limited access to education so it’s not just women in developing countries that need empowerment support.

4)      How should we reconcile the discrepancy between saying that women must have equal rights to claim land if this undermines the status quo that most land in sub-Saharan Africa is not transferred upon death through inheritance but granted to couples upon marriage from one side of the family, with land closer to the marital home more economically advantageous?

Fati Alhassan: On the issue of older women - young widows face the dilemma of either choosing a new husband from her husband’s family or choosing no-one and losing her inheritance and children; the choice of a fresh start vs. staying in the family. Older women sometimes choose to go if they think they can live independently, or they stay to ensure their children’s inheritance. What the GSF do in these cases is secure land from customary authorities for block farming by women e.g. the GSF has secured 120 acres for 7 groups of women that they can continue to use after their husband’s death. Use rights for this land are passed down from mother to daughter to ensure continuous access to land between generations. In northern Ghana there are 4 camps with 700 women accused of witchcraft together with their children. The stigma suffered by these children mean that they cannot go to school and so miss out on education, thereby contributing to the intergenerational transmission of poverty. The GSF has therefore been getting district assemblies to raise awareness at the community level on children’s rights to education so that the children of alleged witches can continue in education so as to break the cycle of intergenerational transmission of poverty.

Kate Bird: The evidence from some of the commissioned research shows that younger women are actually more vulnerable to losing assets upon widowhood, especially if they do not have any of their own. This is because young widows who have not been married long are less likely to have had children and also have not had time to build strong social capital with their in-laws. There is therefore a need to consider different age cohorts within widowhood.

Moves towards individual titling can worsen women’s and children’s rights as titling often goes to male heads of households. This problem can be addressed in part through co-titling, but highlights that the assumption that individual titling is better than communal is not supported by the evidence. Communal rights have been eroded with time, especially as land pressures have increased. This demonstrates that customary practices are not immutable, and whilst they have been developing in a negative direction in recent times it offers hope that more equitable changes might be possible.

The questioner’s assertion that couples cannot get land from both the husband’s and wife’s side of the family is not true, in some societies women can inherit from their mothers. Nor is it true that land 30 miles from a woman’s marital home is useless as this set of studies has shown that women who have been able to secure assets, even if distant, are at a less disadvantaged position within the conjugal contract as it provides a safety net.

The relation between inheritance and Islamic law is complicated and cannot be generalised across Islamic countries. Comparing practices across South Asia with  Indonesia reveals different interactions between Islamic law and customary practice, e.g. Islamic law in Indonesia has been ‘Indonesianised’ so that it is more equal in comparison with South Asia.

On urban and peri-urban issues, in urban areas, land comprises a lower proportion of total asset portfolios with different types of asset e.g. business assets, relatively more important. In this context, if land is still strongly emotive, it can actually be easier for women to inherit. Widows for Peace and Democracy are knowledgeable on this.

Angela Langenkamp: On widows and economic empowerment, according to her experience of living amongst polygamous households in rural Kenya, a widow’s status changes once they are past child-bearing age and they become a member of the respected group of elders.

On the issue of communal ownership, Angela worked with group of women in Kenya to register land in all their names to protect it from an acquisitive chief. This required finding a legal entity that a group could register under e.g. a cooperative, so to provide a legal identity to the group that would then enable land registration and protection from grabbing. The formal identity was very important.

Economic empowerment doesn’t necessarily begin with land ownership, it can also be training in business expertise etc.

Meryem Aslan: Worked with HelpAge in Kenya on the care requirements of older women - they are not off UNIFEM’s radar. The issue of aging populations, social security and crises of pension provisions are common to many countries in Africa and around the world. There is a need to develop practical forms of health and unemployment insurance and provide childcare. UNIFEM has worked in Africa with organisations looking into more informal types of insurance but it is a difficult subject and as the poor age and retire they get poorer, especially women.

UNIFEM Does not support economic programmes in rich countries, despite poverty there e.g. in Detroit, USA.

5)      (From the web forum) How far could the introduction of women’s inheritance laws promote peace in countries like Colombia for example?

Kate Bird: Our research has not looked at the relationship between women’s asset holding and peace or violence. But we do know that women’s asset ownership does seem to be associated with better intra-household relations - more peaceful family relations and women being more able to exit violent marriages.

Andrew Norton: Collective titling does seem the way to go, not least because individual titling gets bogged down. The big problem is that there has been a romanticisation of communal resources. We need to also think about sharecroppers, charcoal burners etc. - groups who aren’t traditionally included in society. Increased land pressure will necessitate increased communal resources.


Assets can be an important source of social mobility and in low income developing countries land is the key asset. It is the primary source of wealth, social status, and power and provides the basis for shelter, food, and economic activities. Conversely, limited access to and control of land can restrict livelihood opportunities; constrain coping strategies in the face of negative events and inhibit investments in human capital formation. In many developing countries women rarely have independent property rights, instead they access productive assets through their fathers, husbands or adult sons. Land is commonly obtained through inheritance but women are rarely allowed to inherit land. This influences their ability to make independent decisions and, particularly if widowed or divorced, limits their ability to feed and educate their children.

This meeting will present an overview of new research into inheritance practice and its impact on how wealth (and poverty) is transmitted from one generation to another. It will explore ways that inheritance policy and practice can be made more equitable and will hear from practitioners about their work to empower women and improve the life-chances of them and their children.