File picture: REUTERS
File picture: REUTERS

Udaipur — Women, lower-caste and indigenous people across Asia are failing to benefit from land reform laws because of custom and deep-rooted social biases, land rights activists said on Wednesday.

Globally, indigenous communities have legal rights to only 10% of land, according to Washington-based advocacy group Rights and Resources Initiative.

“Land conflicts in Asia are increasing in coverage and intensity, not only because of clashes with industry, but also because of social exclusion, discrimination and historical disenfranchisement,” said Nathaniel Don Marquez, of Angoc, a non-profit network for agrarian reform in the region.

“Recognition of indigenous lands has become difficult as commercial pressure on land grows, and land reforms fail to recognise how assets are controlled in households where women are excluded,” the executive director said.

A survey by Angoc of eight Asian countries including the Philippines, India and Bangladesh found land reform laws that recognised indigenous rights and women’s rights were not implemented in full, and that land had not been redistributed.

Deadliest country

When indigenous people claim their land rights, they are often met with violence, Marquez said.

The Philippines was ranked as the deadliest country for land rights activists in 2018 by Britain-based Global Witness.

In India, land titles are almost always in a man’s name. Indian women own just 13% of farmland, despite making up more than a third of the agricultural workforce, according to census data.

Amendments in 2005 to the country’s Hindu Succession Act, which governs inheritance among Hindus who make up about 80% of the population, made women’s rights equal to those of men, yet customary laws and tradition have denied women these rights, said Ginny Shrivastava, an Indian women’s rights activist.

“There is a mindset that land must be in the name of men,” she said at a land forum in Udaipur city in the western state of Rajasthan. “With increased migration of men to cities for jobs, there is increasing feminisation of agriculture across Asia. Yet women’s ownership of land remains unequal.” 

Women are often pressured to give up their right to ancestral land at the time of marriage, she said.

While widows can legally inherit their husband’s property, in Rajasthan widows are customarily not allowed to leave the house for a month, or even a year, and so can miss the deadline to transfer the title within 30 days of a death, she said.

“Simply having something in the law is not enough. Gender audits of land laws are needed to identify the gaps in implementation and address them,” she said.

Lower-caste Dalits and indigenous Adivasis are also kept from owning land because of deep-rooted biases, even though India banned caste-based discrimination in 1955, said Sujatha Surepally, a Dalit activist.

At least half of India’s lower-caste population is landless.

Peace march

“They do all the work, yet they own so little land, despite state laws to give land to the landless,” she said.

A year-long global peace march from Delhi to Geneva, that starts in the Indian capital on Wednesday, aims to highlight the struggles over land, said Puthan Rajagopal, president of Ekta Parishad, an Indian human rights advocacy group.

“The land, the forests belong to the people who have tended to them for generations,” he said.

“We have the old problems of poverty and injustice, along with new and escalating problems such as the effects of global warming that hurt them the most,” he said.

Thomson Reuters Foundation