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Power and Potential. A comparative analysis of national laws and regulations concerning women's rights to community forests

Equal rights and opportunities for women are not only matters of women’s justice and dignity. It is well known that when women and girls have equal rights in law and in practice—and equal opportunities to achieve their aspirations—their communities and countries also benefit. Development practitioners now recognize that prioritizing the education and empowerment of women and girls is perhaps the most impactful, and efficient, path to advancing social and economic development.

Less well recognized is the fact that gender justice in land rights extends beyond the agricultural and private property arenas that have—to date—been the focus of development organizations.

Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ lands cover more than half the world’s global land mass, and women make up more than half of the 2.5 billion people who customarily own and use these lands. Yet, indigenous and rural women’s rights to these vital lands and resources, and their voices in the governance of these lands, have not earned significant attention in development circles. By any measure, secure land rights for indigenous and rural women is far from a marginal development issue.

This report— "Power and Potential. A comparative analysis of national laws and regulations concerning women's rights to community forests" perhaps Rights and Resources Initiative's (RRI) most important contribution to the body of work on Indigenous Peoples’ and communities’ rights to their lands and resources—provides an unprecedented assessment of the status of developing countries’ legal frameworks regarding women’s community land rights, and whether states are meeting their obligations under national and international laws. It also provides a baseline with which to measure global progress and report against the Sustainable Development Goals related to women’s rights.

Critically, the report reveals that governments are not providing equal rights and protections to indigenous and rural women and are failing to meet their international commitments to do so. The findings also show that secure community land rights and the legal advancement of women often go hand in hand. Laws that protect women’s rights to community forests are more likely to safeguard the forest ownership rights of entire communities.

Women have played central roles in land management and community governance throughout history. But recent demographic shifts prompted by rising levels of male out-migration and resource scarcity are further elevating the roles of indigenous and rural women as leaders in their communities, thus amplifying the consequences of inadequate legal recognition of women’s tenure rights around the world.

Simply put: without much greater global effort to explicitly recognize collective rights for women, rural communities are
likely to face even greater challenges and uncertainty in coping with life’s daily challenges, the increasing demands on their resources, and climate change. Securing women’s rights to community lands offers the most promising path toward peace, prosperity, and sustainability in the forested and rural lands of the world.

Read also "When Women Have Land Rights, the Tide Begins to Turn" IPS

Women’s land rights, recurring droughts and creeping desertification

According to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), one way to address droughts that cause more deaths and displaces more people than any other natural disaster, and to halt desertification – the silent, invisible crisis that threatens one-third of global land area – is to bring about pressing legal reforms to establish gender parity in farm and forest land ownership and  its management.

“Poor rural women in developing countries are critical to the survival of their families. Fertile land is their lifeline. But the number of people negatively affected by land degradation is growing rapidly. Crop failures, water scarcity and the migration of traditional crops are damaging rural livelihoods. Action to halt the loss of more fertile land must focus on households. At this level, land use is based on the roles assigned to men and women. This is where the tide can begin to turn,” says Monique Barbut, Executive Secretary of the UNCCD, in its 2017 study. "Turning the tide: The gender factor in achieving Land Degradation Neutrality"

Closing the gender gap in agriculture alone would increase yields on women’s farms by 20 to 30 percent and total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5 to 4 percent, the study quotes the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as saying.