When women own property there is a noticeable improvement in their socio-economic well-being, their family’s health and nutritional outcomes, and also in their own physical security. On the contrary, women with no ownership over property find themselves incapable of engaging in economic activities or having a say in household matters and are comparatively more vulnerable to domestic violence. Despite overwhelming evidence supporting asset ownership by women, a significantly minor population of women own land or property in the world today.
There are many factors which restrict women’s access to property rights. The World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting at Davos in January 2018 noted that India was one of the 15 countries in the world, where the prevalence of patriarchal traditions prevented women from enjoying equal ownership rights to property. In addition, the lack of legal awareness about her inheritance rights and the skewed implementation of property laws have fueled gendered social discrimination in India. Though the government of India has been undertaking several initiatives to improve women’s access to property and assets through different policies and legal measures, there’s significant room for identifying and addressing the many barriers that impede women’s access to and retention of assets. Moreover, the mediation of women’s land rights in India through various personal laws and customary practices rather than through legal discourse, have also allowed patriarchal norms to dictate inheritance and succession rights of women historically. The 2005 amendment to the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 and the 2020 Supreme Court verdict affirming a daughter’s equal rights to coparcenary property has been a step towards undoing some of the gendered discriminations in our inheritance laws. But a lot still remains to be done.
One of the first steps towards addressing any problem is understanding the extent, scale and nuanced impact of these problems. This is where we encounter one of the first obstacles when it comes to talking about property ownership among women – the lack of reliable, conclusive data.
The Data Gap
Globally, it is estimated that women own less than 10 (FAO) to 20 percent (WEF) of the world’s land. In India, there are two national-level surveys which attempt to provide gender-disaggregated data on land ownership – the National Family Health Survey and the Indian Human Development Survey. However, both these databases, which vary significantly in their findings, are not without their weaknesses. While the NFHS-5 data estimates that among women aged 15 to 49, 38.7 percent own a house or land (either jointly or by themselves), the IHDS survey (2010-11) estimates that 6.5 percent of all women over the age of 18 are landowners (however, this data does not record joint ownership of property).
Furthermore, when it comes exclusively to agricultural land ownership, the figures reveal a disheartening scenario. In India, where it is estimated that over 70 percent of rural women work as agricultural labourers, only 14 percent of agricultural land holders are women and they roughly own only 12 percent of the total operational land holdings. However, owing to the variance in methodology and findings of this study, not to mention its shortcomings, it is rather difficult to conclusively state what percentage of women own land and property, and what demographics these land-owning women belong to. In the absence of reliable data, it becomes increasingly difficult to design a gender-responsive policy that encourages property ownership among women.
The Need for Gender-Responsive Policies in Property Rights
While there may be a dearth of clear, reliable datasets on property ownership among women, it is still evident that women are greatly disadvantaged in their access to property rights. Even as per the more liberal estimates (i.e. the NFHS-5 dataset), which has been criticized for being unrealistically high, only 1 in 3 women own property, either jointly or by themselves. There is, therefore, a clear need for gender-responsive policies to encourage property ownership among women.
Firstly, existing laws should be studied from a gender lens to explicitly identify, and accordingly amend, laws which have been discriminatory towards women. For eg. a paper published by the National Institute for Public Finance and Policy for the Property Rights Research Consortium notes, while the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, has undergone some amendments to reduce discrimination against women (most notably the 2005 amendment and the recent judgement upholding daughters’ rights to coparcenary property), there continue to exist provisions under the Act which discriminate against women, specifically in the devolution of property under Section 15. Under these provisions, there have been instances in the past when the husband’s family was unfairly prioritized in the scheme of devolution as compared to the woman’s own family, even when the property belonged to the woman.
Secondly, policies and schemes must incentivise property registration in women’s names. The legislation in some states under the Indian Stamp Act offers a lesson that can be emulated by other states as well. Under the Act, many state governments, by offering reduced stamp duty when the property is registered in the women’s names, have encouraged individuals to either consider joint ownership or sole ownership of the property in the women’s names.
Thirdly, robust data-collection methods need to be deployed. This will not only ensure a clear understanding of the extent of ownership among women, but also help assess the varying degrees of disparity even among women, such as the disadvantage experienced by single women, women belonging to scheduled tribes and scheduled castes, widows, etc.
Fourthly, we must acknowledge one of the biggest factors responsible for poor ownership among women – the patriarchal mindset prevalent in our society. Studies have recorded the hesitance in granting inheritance rights to daughters. The patriarchal biases can be found across institutions, from within families and communities to religious institutions and among government institutions as well. There is, therefore, a strong case to be made for awareness and outreach programmes which can sensitize policy-makers and government officials on the importance of women’s rights, while also ensuring increased awareness among women about their rights.
At the end of the day, only that which gets measured gets done. And hence, it is important to start working towards a reliable dataset which records the clear extent of property ownership among women and has a clear understanding of the various factors that determine her access to property rights. Only through an evidence-based approach can we ensure the implementation of gender-responsive policies, which can help advance the rights of women in our country.
The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.