Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-PAKISTAN: Slowly, Women Gain Ground through Land Ownership

Zofeen Ebrahim

BADIN, Pakistan, Jul 13 2010 (IPS) - “I told my husband if he ever hits me (again), I’ll pack up and go to my parents who live just round the corner, and he will lose the land I got,” says Jannat Gul of Tando Bagho village here in this southern Pakistani district. Her husband has not hit her for the past six months – since Gul became the owner of some 1.6 hectares of land.

Having land has made all the difference to Zar Bibi, a 60-year-old widow (centre). Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Having land has made all the difference to Zar Bibi, a 60-year-old widow (centre). Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Gul is one of the beneficiaries of a project of Pakistan’s Sindh province, initiated in 2008, to distribute 91,000 hectares of cultivable state land to 80,000 poor and landless peasants, many of them women.

Indeed, President Asif Ali Zardari has decreed that the 21,000 hectares of land for distribution during the project’s second year be reserved for women, who are traditionally left out of land reform schemes and have less opportunities to own land.

The coordinator of the land distribution programme, Faisal Ahmed Uqaili, says it aims to “empower the rural women of Sindh”, the country’s southernmost province.

Latest reports, released in November 2009, say that over 17,400 hectares of land, in 17 of the 23 Sindh districts, have been distributed to some 4,200 beneficiaries. More importantly, 70 percent of these were the most impoverished women. Each receives between 1.6 and 10 hectares of land, depending on availability.

To many rural women, land ownership in this South Asian country has empowered them in various ways.

To many, it has opened the door to improvements in livelihood. To others, it has brought respect in an agricultural setting where women wanting or demanding land ownership can be seen as “weakening” the position of brothers and fathers, as a 2008 study by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) describes it.

“I paid off the grocer’s loan, bought new clothes for myself and my grandchildren, and re-invested the rest into the land,” says Zar Bibi, a 60-year-old widow, who made a profit of 45,000 rupees (525 U.S. dollars) off the first crop of rice she harvested from her new plot of land.

“I would never, even in my wildest of dreams, been owner of 1.6 hectares of land,” exclaims Hema Mai, 42, a former farmhand from the minority Hindu community in Begna Mori, a village of 4,000 people in the Jaati district in Sindh. “Our fortunes have turned.”

With agriculture accounting for 42 percent of full-time employment and 23 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, land ownership is considered the most important safeguard against poverty in rural Pakistan, where nearly two-thirds of the population resides.

But land ownership is, as the SDPI report describes, “highly skewed” – with women receiving the shortest end of the stick.

Women can legally own land, but state land allotment has always excluded women, explains Haris Gazdar, a Karachi- based economist. “Land allotment rules require that allottees be recognised as cultivators, and this invariably means men. This scheme is the first that I know of in Pakistan, where women are targeted as exclusive or primary beneficiaries,” he says.

“It is not easy for a woman to control, access and manage her land. The revenue department which maintains land records or the agriculture markets is heavily male- dominated,” Uqaili adds.

This initiative to level the playing field is the “Benazir effect”, says Gazdar, in reference to former Pakistani prime minister and champion for women’s rights, Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007. “This thrust for women’s land ownership came from the political leadership and not from the bureaucracy,” he adds.

But old ways of thinking are not easy to change – and some men are voicing their displeasure over the programme. “They (disgruntled men he meets during field visits) say women will become rebellious, will find a tongue (if they own land),” explains Jalil Khokhar, coordinator of the non- government National Rural Support Programme, which supports the Sindh scheme.

“Socially, it is considered a norm for women to forego inheritance rights, and if they own title, they will allow husbands, sons, brothers etc to take charge,” Gazdar says. “Social norms are based on the notion that a woman will leave her parents’ home and her husband’s family will acquire control over her property, hence the reluctance to allow her to inherit fixed assets.”

It is also common for men to assert claims over land held by female relatives. Thus, the Sindh programme tries to ensure that the land allotted to women will remain with them. “The land cannot be sold for at least 15 years and the heirs can only be female next-of-kin,” says Khokhar.

But despite its gains, the programme faces a gamut of problems.

A study conducted after the first year of the programme by the non-government group Participatory Development Initiatives (PDI) reported that 50 percent of the women beneficiaries did not receive their corresponding legal ownership documents.

Uqaili questions these allegations: “There were such cases, but 50 percent is a gross exaggeration. Of the 4,200 people who got land, only 150 women did not get legal ownership documents.”

But, he admits: “Despite our best intentions, we met with huge issues at every step.”

“At times, the land was illegally occupied by influential individuals, which meant long-drawn litigation as delaying tactics. Then, in some places, land was allotted but there was no water as had been promised,” Uqaili says.

In some cases, land was also found to have been allotted to relatives of influential persons.

According to the PDI, hundreds of cases are under litigation because there were multiple claimants to the allocated state land.

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