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 – 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 – 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.

Continue reading