India: Why property rights for women matter

India: Why property rights for women matter

Nov 07, 2013
For women, effective rights in property are critically important, not just for their economic well-being but also for their political and social empowerment, writes Bina Agarwal.

Indian rural women
DelhiBina Agarwal is a prize-winning development economist and Professor of Development Economics and Environment at the University of Manchester. Earlier, she was Director, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi. Her work, ‘A Field of One’s Own: Gender and Land Rights’ in South Asia, came out in 1994. She also spearheaded a successful campaign for the comprehensive amendment of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, which resulted in the enactment of the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005. In this conversation with Pamela Philipose, she talks about how women’s property rights have evolved in India.
For women, effective rights in property are critically important, not just for their economic well-being but also for their political and social empowerment.
Why is women’s command over such property important? Consider land. As I have spelt out in my writings, for the vast numbers still living in villages, land remains the mainstay of livelihoods. It is the primary factor of production and the main source of income and welfare for millions.
There is also a strong correlation between landlessness and poverty. Even a small plot can protect a family from destitution by providing supplementary income. Simply getting a title to land can be greatly empowering for women in a context where they have none. This was wonderfully encapsulated in the words of women who received land titles for the first time after the Bodh Gaya movement in Bihar in the late 1970s. They were quoted as having said: “We had tongues, but could not speak/We had feet, but could not walk/Now that we have land/ We have the strength to speak and walk.”
These benefits of possessing land are compounded for women, who are even more dependent on agriculture than men, since men have been increasingly migrating to non-farm jobs. Land in women’s hands not only enhances their own livelihood options, but also the welfare of their families. Many studies reveal that women tend to spend a larger proportion of their incomes from employment or assets on family needs, especially children’s needs, than men.
An additional finding from research I did with a colleague a few years ago is the security against domestic violence land ownership can provide. We studied 502 ever-married women in the 15-49 age group in the rural and urban areas of Thiruvananthapuram district in Kerala, and found that the incidence of spousal physical violence was 49 per cent among those who owned neither land nor a house, but only seven per cent among those who owned both; and 10 per cent and 18 per cent, respectively, for those who owned only a house or only land.
Apart from these benefits, given the feminisation of agriculture, secure land rights for women are necessary for increasing farm output. About 40 per cent of agricultural workers in India are women but their productivity is seriously constrained by their lack of access to land, credit (for which land can serve as collateral), inputs, technical information, and so on. Without land titles women are not even seen as farmers and seldom benefit from government schemes meant for marginal farmers. According to FAO’s 2011 State of Agriculture Report, reducing the constraints faced by women farmers in developing countries could raise farm yields by 20-30 per cent and raise total agricultural output by 2.5-4 per cent.
Women can gain access to land in many ways: via inheritance, through the state, or through the market. Of these, inheritance is especially important since almost 86 per cent of arable land in India is privately owned. It is sometimes argued that granting daughters equal inheritance rights will fragment holdings and reduce farm productivity. This argument has two problems. First, fragmentation can occur even where sons are involved, so privileging one sex over another cannot be justified. Second, the unit of ownership need not be the unit of cultivation. Families often continue to farm together and land can be consolidated in many other ways as well, including by groups of women pooling their plots and cultivating them jointly – this has been happening for many years in parts of Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.
The early 20th century also saw the emergence of a number of women’s organisations demanding inheritance rights for women in a predominantly patrilineal context. This was one of the central issues taken up by organisations such as the All India Women’s Conference and the Women’s Indian Association. An important part of that history was the setting up of the Rau Committee in the 1940s. The Committee recommended enactment of a Hindu Code with provisions for stronger inheritance rights for women, more liberal divorce laws, etc. Encapsulated in the Hindu Code Bill of 1947, the provisions were widely debated in the Legislative Assembly. Both Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru were committed to the Bill but it was deferred till after the first general election of Independent India of 1951, because of resistance from conservative elements within the Congress.
As finally passed, the original elements of the Hindu Code Bill were unpacked, and enacted in four separate Acts, including the Hindu Succession Act (HSA) of 1956 which dealt with inheritance. In retrospect, it was very helpful that there were four separate Acts, since this made it easier to subsequently reform the HSA in women’s favour. For instance, in 2005, when I worked for the amendment of the HSA to make it gender equal, the chances of success would have been greatly diminished if issues of succession had got enmeshed with issues of marriage and divorce.
The Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act 2005 (HSAA 2005) was in fact a landmark. It brought all agricultural land on par with other forms of property, and made Hindu Women’s inheritance rights in land legally equal to men’s across states. The amended Act also made all daughters (married and unmarried) coparceners along with sons in joint family property, with the same rights to shares, to claim partition, and (by presumption) to become kartas (managers) of that property.
The amended Act is thus a significant legal step forward and has the potential for substantially empowering women. But so far we have little information on this count. In fact, we still do not have systematic data across the country on women’s actual ownership of immovable property. A 1991 survey in seven states by development sociologist, Marty Chen, although on a small sample, is indicative. It showed that only 13 percent of women whose fathers owned land had inherited any as daughters, although Kerala did much better with a figure of 43 percent. We also know from the Agricultural Census of 1995-96 (when gender disaggregated data were collected) that women held only 9.5 per cent of all operational (that is cultivated) land holdings. We need more up-to-date information, however, and there is a strong case for strengthening the database by disaggregating land owned and operated by gender in agricultural censuses and NSS surveys.
Moreover, although we now have a gender-equal inheritance law for Hindu women, there have been rather few efforts by women’s organisations to use this ammended law innovatively. The neglect of the HSAA 2005 by women’s groups is surprising, since the Act can go a long way in protecting women even from domestic violence. The HSAA, as noted, allows women to reside in their parental home as a right and not on sufferance. It is therefore time the enormous potential of the HSAA 2005 in empowering women is given due cognisance, both by civil society groups and government.
In the long term, of course, it is not desirable that families be torn apart by litigation over property. What we would want is a voluntary recognition by society that daughters are equal to sons in terms of their rights over property, especially immovable property. This will need substantial attitudinal change.

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