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Originally published March 10, 2009 at 4:01 PM | Page modified March 10, 2009 at 4:34 PM

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Guest columnist

Access to land improves women's lives around the world

Raising awareness about the need for secure land rights for women is a critical to improve the lives of women and their families, says Tim Hanstad, president of the Seattle-based Rural Development Institute. RDI's research has proved that even a little bit of land, sometimes as small as one-tenth of an acre, does help women build a sustainable livelihood.

Special to The Times

WIKIPEDIA tells us that International Women's Day (IWD), celebrated each in March, is "a major day of global celebration for the economic, political and social achievements of women." While the international community has focused on initiatives that create opportunities for women, it is important to recognize those achievements are not equally shared, and much more needs to be done for women mired in poverty.

Many of us in the U.S. don't think much about the direct relationship between land ownership and poverty — and how women are disproportionately affected by lack of land ownership. Women represent 51 percent of the world's population and provide 60 to 80 percent of food production in most developing countries. But they own less than 2 percent of the world's titled land, largely because few have legal rights to land.

Raising awareness about the need for secure land rights for women is a critical component of the work by the Rural Development Institute (RDI), an international nonprofit advocating for secure land rights across the globe.

RDI's research has proved that even a little bit of land, sometimes as small as one-tenth of an acre, does help women build a sustainable livelihood. Land ownership also provides a stronger impetus for women to assume a larger leadership role within their households and their communities.

In India, one of the most populous and impoverished nations in the world, land rights can often mean the difference between a life of abject poverty and a life of opportunity. Consider Shakti, a young Indian woman who recently was able to purchase a small plot of land with the help of a purchase program designed by the RDI. Today, Shakti has new status in her village and in her home. With the income from her land, she is able to provide three meals a day for her children. Equally important, she can send her children to school.

With secure land rights, women have a greater incentive to invest in the cultivation and protection of their land. Shakti and others like her demonstrate that income in the hands of women has a ripple effect — better nutrition for the household, increased food security, better disease prevention, and improved bargaining power within the household and community.

RDI developed its Women and Land Program about 10 years ago to focus specifically on gender issues around land, which have long been ignored. Research in this area is absolutely crucial. We know that deeply rooted cultural norms in Third World countries won't be changed overnight, but a lot can be done just by changing policies and laws to create political and legal space for women to assert their rights and become pioneers in this field in their respective countries. It's also important to listen to what women want and not to impose Western values on these societies and to provide legal education on the laws that are already in place.

Over the past 40 years, RDI has worked in more than 45 countries, helping more than 400 million of the world's poorest people, most of whom are women. In India, RDI secures women's land rights through "micro-ownership" of land titled in women's names. In China, RDI provides training for legal-aid lawyers on the protection of rural women's land rights. In Rwanda, RDI is assisting the Rwandan government with implementation of its new land law, including consideration of gender issues. With these initiatives, RDI is demonstrating Seattle's role as global leader in innovative solutions to some of the world's biggest problems.

Tim Hanstad is president and CEO of the Rural Development Institute (RDI), a Seattle-based international nonprofit advocating for secure land rights for the world's poorest people. For more information, visit www.rdiland.org

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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