In 1994, Bina Agarwal, a professor at the University of New Delhi, wrote the seminal book on gender and land rights – A Field of One’s Own. Last week, the US State Department released a rather distorted version of Agarwal’s conclusions. In a release entitled “Women’s Lack of Property Rights Linked to Abuse, Experts Say”, the State department has reduced the complex web of social and material burdens on women to one simple solution, and one simple right – the right to private property.
Of course, it is an indictment of our planet that women control pitifully little of it – one factoid based, as far as I’ve been able to find out, on data that’s now over 20 years old, is this: women grow more than half the food in the Global South, but own less than 1% of the land there.
But rights to property are one set of rights among many – such as rights to healthcare, to education, to employment. And in Promised Land, a book I’ve just finished editing, Sofia Monsalve has put the case for women’s rights to land in a far broader context.
She asks whether women’s rights to land are “The Trojan Horse of Neoliberalism”, pointing out that women’s rights to land have often been the stealth-mechanism to privatise land. Ownership is, after all, only one way in which society regulates the control of land. It’s possible to control something without being entitled to sell it (and possible, in fewer cases admittedly, to own something without being able to control it).
In Latin America the contradictions of women’s rights to land and property constituted as individual rights have been called into question primarily by indigenous peoples. Deere and León record an Ecuadorian indigenous woman who, in the early 1990s, said: “[T]he whole issue of gender and rights to land is irrelevant, since indigenous peoples have not put forward the individual demand to land; it has always been collective from the community’s perspective”
(Deere and León 2002, 305).