Property rights for women: the key to true shelter -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Property rights for women: the key to true shelter

“So I take a blanket and I spend the night with my children out in the cold, because he is hitting me too much and I have to take the kids to stop him hitting them too. I would go up the mountain and sleep there all night. I’ve done that more than 10 times.”—A woman in Peru
By Nora O’Connell

Home. The word conjures the image of a shelter from the dangers of the outside. But for millions of women around the world, their home is anything but a shelter. One in three women worldwide will be physically, sexually or otherwise abused during her lifetime. And it is not strangers these women must fear. Women are most at risk of experiencing violence at the hands of an intimate partner.

What is the key to enabling women to be safe in their homes? Recent research suggests that at least part of the answer is for women to have formal ownership of property.

Studies conducted by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) in South Asia found that increased levels of property ownership by women correlated with substantially lower risks of domestic abuse and violence. Up to 84.5 percent of women said they believed property ownership increased their status within their family.

Furthermore, property ownership empowered a larger number of women to negotiate or walk out of marriages that may have been abusive. In one study, 71 percent of women who owned property left an abusive situation, compared with 19 percent of women who did not own property.

Unfortunately, women around the world face significant barriers to owning property. These barriers can be formal or traditional. But they all have the same effect of denying women the security and economic opportunity of owning a home.

For example, under the civil code in the Dominican Republic, the husband is the legal head of the household and has exclusive administrative rights over family property.

Tanzanian women, like many of their sub-Saharan counterparts, are denied equal property rights because of discriminatory inheritance laws. When a person dies without a will, as most people in Tanzania do, their estates are distributed under either customary (e.g., tribal) or Islamic law, neither of which provides women with the same inheritance rights as men. Under customary law, a woman often has no rights to her husband’s land or property. If her husband dies, she is faced with the choice of either marrying his brother or being displaced from her home.

In Bangladesh, as recently as in 2006, fewer than 10 percent of all women had their names on marital property papers such as titles to land or homesteads.

Solutions to ensuring both women and men have access to secure land tenure and property rights are vastly different from country to country. In some countries, it is as simple as making sure the property registration forms include spaces for both a husband’s and a wife’s name. In some countries, it can be as complicated as advocating for the passage of a new law and educating people about the change. In 2007, for example, Lesotho passed a law granting married women the right to own property formally, and the government has launched an education and training program so the law is understood by both men and women.

In 2009, U.S. Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) introduced legislation that would increase U.S. funding to help women in developing countries around the world have the right to own their own property. The Global Resources and Opportunities for Women to Thrive Act—or GROWTH Act (S. 1425)—calls for new resources to support local women’s organizations in developing countries in education and advocacy efforts to increase women’s property ownership. If passed, it would not only help women have legal rights to own their homes, it could help ensure their home is the safe shelter we all deserve.

Habitat for Humanity has been a strong supporter of the GROWTH Act, recognizing that the issue of property rights is a foundation to provide women and women-headed households with the social, legal and economic advantages that enable them to lead community transformation and to nurture a new generation.

Nora O’Connell is vice president for policy and government affairs at Women Thrive Worldwide, the nation’s leading nonprofit organization shaping U.S. policy to help women lift themselves and their families out of poverty globally. She leads the organization’s advocacy work on gender integration and women’s empowerment.