TMG Think Tank for Sustainability
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Women's rights ARE human rights

Harnessing the power of human rights to secure women's land tenure security

by Ilse Pelkmans, Frederike Klümper | 2023-03-03

Women's rights ARE human rights
Source: Kenya Land Alliance

Land is the foundation for food, shelter and livelihoods. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), less than 20% of land holders globally are women - with the numbers being significantly lower in some countries of Asia and Africa. When a significant proportion of the human population is denied legitimate rights to land, this not only threatens their means of survival, but violates their fundamental human rights.

The UN Human Rights Office makes an explicit link between land tenure insecurity for women and achieving a range of rights-based global goals, including gender equality and sustainable development. With the continuing dominance of patriarchal land inheritance systems across the world, women often do not have rights to access, let alone own land. Women also risk losing their previous access to male relatives if they undergo divorce, or if their spouse dies.

Most States have ratified several human rights instruments that oblige them to protect, respect and fulfil the right to non-discrimination and realize gender equality, including in terms of access to land and inheritance practices. States are also obliged to realize the right to food, to water, and to housing.

We can use these human rights obligations, to claim land rights for widows and other vulnerable women, and hold States accountable for responsible land governance that secures the tenure rights of all.

Navigating legal instruments that protect women's land rights

What is the starting point in making the link between land rights and human rights? How can we find out which human rights obligations and instruments are relevant to specific cases of women‘s land rights violations? And what should States do to promote gender equality in the land sector?

The Human Rights 4 Land Navigator can help. It’s an online tool that provides an overview of the linkages between responsible land governance and human rights. It provides a detailed overview of the different human rights that underpin States' obligations to govern land responsibly by securing legitimate land rights. These obligations are set out in the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT), an internationally recognized document endorsed by the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in 2012.

Below, we provide a practical example of how policy makers, women's rights advocates, and other users can use the Navigator to identify and apply relevant human rights standards that underpin specific cases of women's land rights violations at the family level.

Using the international human rights framework to protect women’s land rights in inheritance-related land conflicts

Search word “women AND inheritance”

If you enter the search words ‘women’ and ‘inheritance’ in the Navigator, you will be directed to eight relevant paragraphs within several different sections of the VGGT. VGGT Paragraph 4.6, for example, instructs States to “remove and prohibit all forms of discrimination related to tenure rights, including those resulting from change of marital status (…) and ensure equal tenure rights for women and men, including the right to inherit and bequeath these rights.’

Four different human rights are connected to these VGGT paragraphs of the VGGT:

  • Right to equality and non-discrimination

  • Right to equality before courts and tribunals and to a fair trial

  • Right to equality before the law and equal protection of the law

  • Right to property

You’ll also see that you can use more than 12 human rights instruments, with more than 80 specific articles to empower women facing conflicts connected to inheritance rights:

  • Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111) - ILO C111

  • Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (no.169) – ILO 169

  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women

  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination

  • International Convention on the Protection of The Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families 

  • International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

  • International Convention on the Rights of the Child

  • International Covenant of Economic Social and Cultural rights

  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

  • United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

  • United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas

  • Universal Declaration of human rights

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (ICEDAW) shows for example, that States are obliged to ‘ensure that legislation guarantees rural women’s rights to land, water and other natural resources on an equal basis with men, irrespective of their civil and marital status or of a male guardian or guarantor’ (see explanatory note article 14.2g). States’ obligations as defined in these instruments, can support your land claims, through litigation, advocacy or policy improvements.

Human rights obligations can protect women’s rights. Use them!

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