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Women’s Inheritance Rights to Land and Property in South Asia

Women’s Inheritance Rights to Land and Property in South Asia

This is a 2009 study undertaken by the Rural Development Institute, now Landesa, and authored by Elisa Scalise. It focuses on six South Asian countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) and addresses both formal and customary laws and pratices governing women’s inheritance rights.


[From the Executive Summary] Women in developing countries rarely hold secure rights to land, which can provide physical safety and psychological security. Land can be a source of food and a base for incomegenerating activities. Land rights elevate the status of the rights holder in the eyes of family members and the community. Land rights create a sense of self-worth and give people options. Ensuring that women have equitable rights to land acknowledges their worth, helps break down perceptions of inequality within households and communities, and reduces their dependence on men for their survival.
The South Asian countries in this study have different histories, politics, terrain, and culture, however, in each, land is a highly valued asset. Women generally acquire land rights through inheritance, if at all. Inheritance laws fall within the class of personal laws, which can vary within the country, depending on religion or ethnic group.


But an assessment of personal laws tells only part of the story. Women’s inheritance rights are also impacted by other factors; mostly these are other laws and customs which govern family and social relations. Based on the case studies provided in the annex of this study, the following factors may have an impact on women’s inheritance rights.



  • Formal laws discriminate by deferring to customary or religious law

  • Female inheritance may be restricted to certain categories of land

  • Polygamy/marriage practices may impact inheritance

  • Bride price and/or dowry are often viewed as women’s inheritance and are often not given directly to women

  • Other social factors

Women’s inheritance rights are beset with highly contextual legal and cultural obstacles. The following recommended approaches are sound first steps towards identifying possible means to address the cultural change that will be required to ensure equity in inheritance rights for women and men. Land rights for women must be both legally and socially recognized to be effective.



  • Speak to women about property rights for women. Since customary rules often govern women’s lives, attempting to change custom can be very threatening to women and men alike. Any planned intervention must include significant efforts to solicit information from women.

  • Work with men to champion the property rights of women. In patriarchal cultures, men are the powerbrokers; projects intended to promote gender equity must explicitly target men as well as women.

  • Understand the specifics. Study the role of customary, religious and formal laws for women noting that the relevant roles may be different across regions, tribes, clans and class.

  • Legal awareness, legal literacy, and legal aid. Lack of awareness and enforcement has a critical impact on women’s inheritance.

  • Initiate debate with policy makers, NGOs, networks, and advocates towards creating social legitimacy for women’s land rights and control over resources. Women and men both can use their voting power to affect the policy position of candidates running for election.

  • Legal Change. While it is true that legal change alone is insufficient to ensure women’s inheritance rights in the face of customary law, a strong legal foundation can be an important and necessary first step.

  • Land leasing, purchase, or allocation programs for women. The underlying expectation is that a woman will gain more power within the household and thus be less prone to abandonment or domestic abuse if she is the owner of the land that the family relies on for its survival.
Document type: 
Report
Author(s): 
Elisa Scalise
In Journal / Series / Volume: 
World Justice Project
Year: 
2009

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