When women have no land of their own, they often have no economic security, and when they have no security, the door to gender-based violence can be easily flung wide open.
Women for Women International (WfWI) has long recognized that depriving women of land rights not only marginalizes them but can also be considered a particularly insidious form of gender-based violence (GBV).
The situation is especially true in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which has been called the “Rape Capital of the World” due to the brutal suffering heaped on women and girls over two decades of conflict. The ever-present multitude of unbridled armed forces has resulted in massive waves of prolonged displacement and an environment of lawlessness that has severely impacted both women and children, many of whom are widows and orphans.
It's a well-known fact that women and girls are the ones who often suffer disproportionately in conflict; in the DRC they have become symbolic targets of war. Furthermore, when Congolese women lose their husbands under any condition, what little claim they had to their family land disappears – land they themselves had most likely worked. Displaced, they are then denied the right to return home and can be stripped of any possessions they might own solely because they are women.
As women seek protection wherever they can find it, the likelihood of their becoming vulnerable to other kinds of violence increases exponentially.
The Violence of Inequality, a study prepared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and commissioned by the United States Agency for International Development, agrees that depriving women of land rights forces them to become dependent on male relatives for land security, rendering them helpless to escape violent situations.
But there’s another reason why depriving women of land rights can be seen as a form of GBV. It’s called “economic violence,” explains Sabreen Alikhan, WfWI’s Director of Monitoring, Evaluation and Research. That’s when women are intentionally held back from accessing certain financial resources, either by a government or by an individual who holds power over those resources.
“It's a way to control women,” Sabreen says, “a way to manipulate and abuse them, a way to shut them out of economic and social life.”
That’s why WfWI has actively sought to promote women’s awareness of their land rights. Presently, the DRC’s 2006 Constitution affirms the equality of men and women, and recent family laws have been amended to support women’s rights more robustly. However, due to lack of education, traditional customs and long-held male bias to retain power, even these basic facts are not widely known.
Encouraging women to discover and own their voice is a first step.
Angelique, a 38-year-old uneducated farm worker and mother of nine, graduated from our Stronger Women, Stronger Nations program and honed her communication and advocacy skills through our Change Agent program. One day, she put her skills to task when she helped a married neighbor escape a violent beating from her drunken husband, then sat them both down together the next day and gave them advice.
“After that,” Angelique said, “I never saw him beating my neighbor again.”
The training also helped Angelique speak to her own husband about land rights. They both took part in our new Rise project that provides education for both men and women about land heritage. In specially designed couples’ sessions, partners are given the space to hear the information together and openly discuss it.
But the news of women’s rights is not always received with equal enthusiasm. Rachel Boketa, WfWI’s country director for the DRC, recalls one man saying, “My ancestors did it one way, I am not going to be the first to change it.”
But change often comes when least expected.
Angelique’s husband, who had privately expressed concern to her that gaining land rights might lead women to divorce their husbands, was, nonetheless, apparently, giving the issue serious thought.
To Angelique’s surprise, as she was sharing information about land rights to her fellow villagers, he suddenly stood up in front of everyone and announced he was ready to give her land from the land his parents had given him.
And the surprises kept coming.
Halfway through the project, the program directors learned that each of the 20 men engaged as leaders had granted land to their wives as a result of being introduced to the concept.
“What was amazing,” says Sabree Alikhan, WfWI’s director of monitoring, evaluation and research, “is that the men understood not just conceptually but tactically how women’s land rights could impact them and their households. We didn’t expect that at all. But they took action because they believed in the message and were promoting it themselves in their communities.
“That’s a powerful demonstration of how important the role model effect can be and how quickly change can happen.”
In the DRC, where WfWI has presented the benefits of women holding land titles, the effect has been almost domino-like. One woman speaks up for her rights. Her husband stands up to support her. Others watch and listen. And age-old traditions of denying a woman’s right to be economically self-sufficient slowly begin to dissolve.
The rest is sure to follow.