By Payal Agarwal
There is growing recognition that women are discriminated against in access to land and property. Since Indian independence in 1947, various legal reforms have taken place which gives women equal property rights including the right of inheritance. Yet, women comprise barely 11% of landowners in India. The UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing confirms women’s lack of access to property:
“In almost all countries, whether ‘developed’ or ‘developing,’ legal security of tenure for women is almost entirely dependent on the men they are associated with. Women-headed households and women in general are far less secure than men. Very few women own land. A separated or divorced woman with no land and a family to care for often ends up in an urban slum, where her security of tenure is at best questionable.”
In this prevailing environment of gender discrimination, a recent UNU –WIDER paper entitled Women and Landed Property in India – Negotiating Closed Doors and Windows of Opportunities examines land rights and housing requirements of women in informal urban settlements. It looks at land tenure in slums through a gender perspective, highlights the hurdles to secure land tenure for women, and suggests policy reforms to enhance women’s capabilities to own landed property.
The paper employs data from research conducted in collaboration with the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in Ahmedabad. Over a period of seven months in 2003, data was collected in 13 slums of Ahmedabad, from municipal officials and local NGOs. Follow up field work was done in the same slums in 2007.
The author discusses the variety of strategies and interventions that are employed to prevent eviction in slums and analyzes the gender implications of such interventions. A verbal short term (ten-year) guarantee of non-eviction by the municipal corporation is the most common form of tenure security. The research found that at the insistence of NGOs involved in the upgradation program, various documents and bills (such as water and land tax) were issued to female household heads even when a man was present. Most women perceived these to be an empowering and symbolic representation of their right to reside in their homes and communities.
Another intervention that has secured tenure for women is the listing or designation of slums, undertaken in 1976 as a part of a nationwide survey to provide tenure rights to slum-dwellers. However, the author emphasizes that the survey further reinforced the dominant patriarchal attitude that women should rely on men to negotiate access to landed resources, as women were classified as household heads only if there were no adult male relatives.
Besides the formal mechanisms, the slum dwellers also rely on informal mechanisms to strengthen tenure security. One such informal strategy is political patronage, which has strong gender implications. Social restrictions on mobility of women and public interactions give men an unfair advantage, so to speak, over women in giving bribes and mobilizing unfair leverage such as acquiring an illegal electricity connection or a ration card.
Key Issues in Securing Ownership Rights
The author enumerates certain key issues that need to be addressed to develop a “gendered vision” of land tenure. Educating women about their rights and entitlements is important; women cannot exercise their rights if they are not aware of them. Tenure security raises concerns about a consequent rise in rent and the danger of market eviction. Women-headed households in the study were relatively poorer compared to male-headed households. It is feared that titled tenure and amenities like water and sanitation may make rents prohibitively expensive for women.
In the urban setting, no special provision exists for the inclusion of a woman’s name in her husband’s property title. As the law currently stands, inserting a new name in a title document constitutes a sale or transfer of property for which a new sales deed needs to be drawn up, at a cost of up to 10% of the property value. These costs are prohibitive for the urban. Women’s interest groups should undertake policy advocacy in favor of measures that increase the ability of low-income women to secure joint titles with their husbands. Ensuring the “Right of Residence” for women could be an important step in ensuring their “Right of Ownership.” Claim to residence can be further strengthened by putting a woman’s name in documents such as the electric and water bill and housing tax.
This study is unique and important as it focuses on land and housing requirements of urban women, which have received very little attention both in development practice and policy formulation. It proposes securing joint property titles for married women to land and landed assets as the best practical solution for women to access ownership rights in the present context. However, empowering women to secure independent titles to urban land and housing is and must remain the long term goal. In order to ensure equitable land rights for women in informal urban settlements, resettlement schemes and land allocation processes have to be made gender sensitive through public awareness campaigns and policy reforms.
The opinions expressed on the Searchlight South Asia site are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Rockefeller Foundation.