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Assets and Property Rights

The right to own and inherit property, assets and land is something many people take for granted. But it is far from a reality for millions of women. Granting women these rights is a vital part of lifting women and girls out of poverty in the developing world.

Land and Property Rights

It is notoriously difficult to obtain accurate land rights data. Global studies are incomplete, and women can often be left out of agricultural surveys. What we do know is that in all countries, men are more likely to own land than women. A study of 10 African countries, for example, has found that 39 percent of women own land individually, compared to 48 percent of men, while individually 12 percent of women own land jointly, compared to 31 percent of men.

In some contexts, when customary law conflicts with national law, customs can win out. So while women are entitled to own land in most sub-Saharan African countries, in 15 of those countries, customary tenure is exempt from national land ownership laws.

As with many barriers to women’s economic advancement, a lack of documentary identification can also prevent women from exercising their land rights. Unequal access to marriage certificates, birth certificates, title deeds and national identity cards are all impediments for women who wish to prove they are entitled to land.


Globally, women constitute less than 20 percent of agricultural landholders, but they do a large amount of the agricultural work in rural economies: a global rate of 43 percent.

For those women who do run farms, productivity can be 20–30 percent lower than in male-owned farms. The World Bank notes that this is not because women are worse farmers than men, but because women are more likely to run smaller plots, and less likely to have access to high-quality agricultural inputs, such as improved seed varieties, irrigation and machinery. When access to land is taken into account, the productivity gap disappears.

Women’s insecure land tenure also makes it harder to adapt to the effects of climate change, or invest in necessary upgrades such as terracing and better fertilizer. Indeed, some women fear that investing in their farms will make it more likely that their land will be seized.

Inheritance and Divorce

The lack of inheritance provision for widows and daughters is one of the main factors driving poverty among women in many developing countries. The most common way for land to transfer hands, for example, is via inheritance. If a woman is not legally able to inherit the land on which she lives and works, or the property she owns jointly with her husband, his death will mean she is thrust into poverty.

Widows are prevented by law from inheriting land in 35 countries, while daughters are unable to inherit in 34. The Global Fund for Widows estimates that more than 115 million women whose husbands have died live in poverty, partly because of poor inheritance rights. Unequal divorce laws can also lead to women losing out on property rights when a marriage ends.

Providing women with inheritance rights has been shown to have significant generational effects in ending poverty. Women who benefited from property inheritance reform in India have been shown to be more likely to have a bank account, more likely to have proper latrine facilities at home and more likely to have educated daughters.

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