To combat hunger, give land rights to world's poor women

A lack of land rights for the poor fuels global hunger. With no ownership, land is poorly cultivated, and families subsist as day laborers or indentured servants. Giving land to the poor, especially women, allows them to grow food for their families and sell crops to pay for education.

Ajit Solanki/AP
An Indian woman farmer holds a bunch of paddy saplings as she works in a paddy field on the outskirts of Ahmadabad, India, July 1. Op-ed contributor Amanda Richardson writes: 'India has seen great success boosting family nutrition by providing families with small plots of land' and 'these gains are even more pronounced' when women have land rights.

When world leaders gathered in London last month to join British Prime Minister David Cameron’s Hunger Summit, they secured pledges of more than $4 billion to fight world hunger. But for all their efforts to address rising food prices, famine prevention and response, and food distribution, hunger and malnutrition will continue unless one of its fundamental root causes is addressed: the role of secure land rights – especially for women.

The poorest and hungriest people on the planet share three key traits: They live in rural areas, rely on the land to survive, and have no legal rights to the land they rely on. This means that the land on which they live or work is owned by someone else, such as a large landowner or the government, and that they therefore have no control over the land and do not have secure rights to stay there for the long term. Often, these landless people are sharecroppers, day laborers, or indentured servants.

Many things lead to or exacerbate landlessness. In many countries, there was highly unequal initial land distribution, meaning a few people own much of the land. More recently, rapid population growth, natural resource degradation, and conflict have led to increased pressure on the land and a growing number of landless people. Finally, women are especially vulnerable to becoming landless because of inequitable inheritance practices.

This landlessness impacts farmers in fundamental ways. It means they have no incentive to invest in the land, with inputs like fertilizer, and no opportunity to make big decisions about the land, like digging wells. Therefore, when they are able to make decisions about what to farm, they generally aim to produce a crop that matures quickly and requires little financial investment.

Obviously, this path that does not lead to sustainable and robust farm output of nutritious food. Conversely, when farmers have secure rights to the land they farm, that means they can make improvements to and choices about the land without fear that it might be taken from them.

The amount of land required to help a family is not large. India has seen great success boosting family nutrition by providing families with small plots of land, as spotlighted in this video. Landesa, the global development non-profit where I serve as a land tenure specialist, worked with the governments of several Indian states to design and implement programs that identify poor landless families and give them small plots of government-owned or government-purchased land. So far, eleven states across India have allocated 210,613 of these plots to poor families.

Research shows that land ownership leads farming families to invest in improvements to their agricultural production. This increases food security for the family directly, through increased food production, and indirectly, through increased incomes.

When women specifically have secure land rights, research shows these gains are even more pronounced. While male farmers may focus on cash crops, women often focus on growing crops that provide their family with good nutrition.

That impact goes even further. A study in Ghana showed that when women own a larger share of the household’s land, families allocate a larger proportion of the household budget to food. Similarly, a study in Nicaragua and Honduras found that families spend more on food when the woman of the house owns land.

Women with secure rights to land are also more likely to control income and have higher status in the household and community. Women are more likely than men to make decisions that increase a household’s nutrition and to spend income on the family. In fact, low-income female-headed households often have better nutrition than male-headed households with higher incomes.

Furthermore, women with higher status have better nutrition themselves, and we know that mothers with better nutrition are more likely to have higher birth-weight children, a factor in reducing the likelihood of stunted growth. In Nepal, research showed that the likelihood that a child is severely underweight is reduced by half if the child’s mother owns land.

At stake are the lives of 2.3 million children worldwide who die each year from hunger and so much more.

Just this May, Save the Children’s Food for Thought report found that malnourished children are much less likely to succeed in school. The report explained that children who are malnourished in their first two years grow up smaller and weaker, a condition known as stunting. These children often suffer developmental delays and can go on to earn 20 percent less income than those who are well nourished.

The report, based on studies of children in Ethiopia, India, Peru, and Vietnam, found that malnourished children face basic literacy and numeracy problems.

Landesa joins Save the Children, UNICEF, and other nongovernmental organizations calling on world leaders to commit to tackling malnutrition immediately. Increasing support for land rights will lead to better nutritional outcomes for children worldwide, and help to provide food for the 165 million children currently suffering from malnutrition.

Amanda Richardson is an attorney and land tenure specialist with Landesa, a global development non-profit that works to secure land rights for the world’s poor. Follow the group @Landesa_Global.

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