A land registry of their own

Over at The Guardian,¬†Renee Giovarelli makes the case that formal recognition of women’s land holdings in rural India will definitely improve children’s nutritional outcomes:

There is¬†growing evidence¬†that the reason for India’s malnourished children is not just empty pockets ‚Äď it is, specifically, women’s empty pockets. Women in India have a lower status and therefore less control over resources, both land and money, and consequently do not have the leverage to ensure that their children’s needs are met.


Just last year officials in Odisha state opened the first Women’s¬†Land Rights¬†Facilitations Centre. And officials in West Bengal state have begun adding the names of women to all the land titles they distribute in their micro-plot poverty alleviation programme. Officials in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Odisha and West Bengal are working to ensure that more women find their names on the title documents to the land they till.

This will allow women to fill their pockets, cooking pots and children’s bellies ‚Äď a bumper harvest for their families and communities, and a better future for all of India.

Giovarelli’s argument is that getting women onto land titles leads to a shift in household bargaining power, allowing women to direct more resources to their children. This sort of win-win situation is particularly appealing to those of us concerned with gender equality and the plight of children in poor countries.

Yet, is it true? The eternal conundrum is whether or not formal/legal shifts in ownership actually result in real de facto changes in household bargaining power. This is a standard you-can-lead-a-horse-to-water problem.

Giovarelli presents two¬†empirical¬†studies to suggest that female land ownership does matter: one from Nepal showing that it is associated with better child health outcomes, the other showing that expenditure on food is higher in rural¬†Ghanaian¬†households where women have more control over land.¬†The problem with these studies is that they aren’t¬†convincingly¬†causal – women who enter into marriage with a better bargaining position are likely to both exert ownership over household assets¬†and¬†push for better child health outcomes. Even if land ownership has a causal effect, we cannot be certain that these self-reported, deep-seated indicators of ownership would be affective by formal titling in any meaningful sense.

Unfortunately, land titling programmes aren’t usually designed with these questions in mind. When the decision whether or not to include both husband and wife (co-titling) is left to the household, that decision will be more indicative of existing household preferences rather than actual shifts in bargaining power.

Although it is becoming increasingly common for large-scale titling programmes to force households to co-title, this leaves researchers unable to discern whether it is the co-titling itself which makes a difference, or just the overall impact of having a land title. There’s a growing literature suggesting that titling itself has an impact on gender-related outcomes, irrespective of whether or not women are recognized as owners; disentangling those two effects will be difficult.

I try to keep tooting-my-own-horn to a minimum, but I’m actually working on a project that could shed some light on this problem. As part of a larger titling programme in the slums of Dar es Salaam, we’re using conditional discounts to induce some households to co-title. We’re a long way away from being able to look at outcomes we associate with empowerment, but I do think we’ll be well-placed to answer some of these questions some day.

I should note that when co-titling is cheap it is still worth pursuing, even¬†, even in the absence of direct evidence. Even if de facto¬†arrangements don’t change the minute the ink dries on the land title, it is perfectly possible that empowerment accrues in ways the household is unable to foresee, such as through social change or legislative reform. Still, we should be careful not to overstate the immediate benefits, which are unclear at this point.



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