Women’s Right to Adequate Housing, Land, & Livelihood – India National Workshop & Public Hearing



Why Women Need Land Rights

The right to land is a source of life, livelihood and social security for the rural woman. Land empowers women and reduces their social, economic and political vulnerability. Land spells identity and empowerment, rooted-ness and permanence. Women are intrinsically linked to land, being the producers and providers of food and nutritional security and managers of natural resources such as water, fuelwood and fodder.

Rural women are increasingly becoming the primary cultivators, as men switch to non-farm activities or migrate in search of greener pastures. Yet, in many rural societies patriarchal customs debar women from holding land in their own names. The lack of a title becomes an obstacle when women apply for credit to improve their holdings and yields. Women are often bypassed in land reform or redistribution processes. When people are relocated after displacement by government projects, women’s land rights are rarely acknowledged. Even when such rights are recognized and women are granted land, powerful local interests usually ensure that they cannot till it, particularly if the women belong to traditionally discriminated groups.

In the personal sphere, discrimination is the norm within families and people routinely dispossess daughters, giving the land to sons. Widows, divorcees, deserted wives, unmarried and other single women rarely get land rights and they and children dependent upon them often face destitution.

Historical Context, Objectives, and information on Forming Networks and Initiatives included here in the full report

Report of Public hearing on ‘WOMEN AND LAND RIGHTS’

National Commission for Women and Consult for Women and Land Rights

Allahabad, May 27, 2005

“Hum behnon ka adhikaar hai. Zameen ka haq hamaar hai.”

— Slogan at Public Hearing on Land Rights

A National Workshop and Public Hearing on Women and Land Rights were organized by the National Commission for Women in cooperation with Mahila Samakhya, Allahabad and Consult for Women and Land Rights[1]. The Workshop and Public Hearing were co-supported by IGSSS and Action Aid India. The twin events were held in Allahabad on May 26-27, 2005 at the Mahila Samakya office and the G.B. Pant Institute of Social Sciences, to highlight obstacles women face in realizing their rights to land, property and productive resources. At the workshop on May 26, activists from ten states discussed both the strategies to work on women and land rights and the cases and testimonies to be presented at the public hearing.

On May 27, a Jury headed by retired Judge Achal Bihari Srivastav and NCW Deputy Secretary Gurpreet Deol, Advocate K.K. Roy, Director Mahila Samakya (Uttar Pradesh) Dr. Manju Agarwal, Advocate Sona Khan and social activists Dr. Roop Rekha Verma and Shilpa Vasvavada as members heard cases of violation of women’s land rights. Twenty five rural women testified on the hurdles they have had to face in trying to get their land, housing and property rights. Several women said they faced violence, both in the private and public spheres, when they asserted their rights.

The Public Hearing was a pioneering attempt to record women’s testimonies on denial of land rights including rights to agricultural land, forest land as well as housing plots. The issue is critical for the survival of women and their families as landlessness and alienation from land is increasing under the market economy. The Hearing was attended by 300 women and men, ranging from village women to activists, representing about fifty grassroots organizations and networks from various parts of the country. Altogether, 50 cases of violations were compiled in the run-up to the hearing.

The Jury gave legal advice on the pursuit of individual cases and also made policy, law and program recommendations to help women overcome social and legal barriers in access to and control over land. NCW representative Gurpreet Deol assured the women that NCW would pursue their cases with the relevant authorities. She asked them to send written applications to NCW, enclosing documentation, so that the cases could be followed up subsequent to the Hearing.

Several major issues came up at the Public Hearing including the problems of faulty land reforms and the denial of land rights to different groups of women such as tribals and Dalits, restriction of access to village commons and forests, displacement from habitats and violent retaliation for demanding rights. New opportunities that arise from policies that grant women collective rights to land and resources were also reported.

Land Reforms

The government had issued several thousand pattas (title deeds) to Dalits and other poor people including landless women but did not give them the land. Since the land acquisition process was faulty, the landowners invariably secured stay orders from the courts and continue in possession of thousands of acres, while the landless chase the mirage of land and livelihood.

Tribal women and land rights

Tribal women spoke up, opposing the denial in customary law of their right to inherit land. In central and eastern India when a tribal male dies his land is inherited by his male relatives. If he has no sons, his widow and daughters are left destitute. Tribal women from Jharkhand spoke bitterly against this discrimination institutionalised in customary law and practice.

Single women and land rights

There were many cases where a widow or married daughter had been forcibly ousted from the land by cousin brothers, uncles and other male relatives. In a parochial society, such takeover of women’s land seems to have the tacit approval of village communities.

Muslim women and land rights

In one such testimony, it was quiet clear that a Muslim woman has to struggle much more to get her right over land. Village elders often dismiss her plea for use of her land and instigate the other community to encroach upon her land. Going to various state authorities for relief does not help these women.

Displacement and women’s right to land

Other issues that emerged included the problem of displacement of villagers by various government projects and the increasing denial of access to the forests. Women’s fragile domestic economies are dependent on forests and village commons from which they get fuel, fodder, fruit, herbs, minor forest produce, wood and bamboo for building houses besides other resources. The denial of forest rights cuts at their resource base. Rights and concessions for livelihoods and subsistence-use must be provided for communities on public land such as Reserve Forests and Sanctuaries. Tribal women as well as women in forest-dependent communities should be guaranteed their ancestral ownership and inheritance rights.

Government Lease and women

Some women testified that fresh opportunities arose from the lease of government land for collective income generating activities by groups of village women, for instance, mining leases or leases of fishing ponds. However, short term leases cause financial insecurity and women’s investment in creating or improving the asset is lost if the lease is not renewed by government. They asked for long-term leases, capital to develop resources and tax concessions on production and sale.

Violence against women

Among those who testified were several young women who had faced violence including a blind woman who had been raped, a deaf woman who faced dowry related violence, and a woman whose in-laws had cut off her nose.

In almost every case, women complained of police harassment and refusal to register FIRs, non-cooperation of administration and revenue officials and tortuously slow legal proceedings.


The Hearing’s aim was to create awareness on the issue of women’s land rights and to pressure the central and state governments to devise and implement policies that grant women both individual and collective land rights. A one-day workshop was conducted prior to the Hearing, to review women’s legal rights to land, including inheritance rights, rights to joint pattas and to land distributed under land reform programmes, besides their usufruct rights to forests and village commons, including protected areas such as reserve forests and wildlife sanctuaries.

A parallel afternoon session on documenting cases of violations of rural women’s land rights was held at Bharat Scouts and Guides. Women from several states, mainly Uttar Pradesh, brought cases that they wanted to present before the jury the next day. The cases were thematically sorted and formatted using the broad framework of a “Tool Kit” developed by the Housing and Land Rights Network. In the morning, workshop participants, including NGO representatives and activists were introduced to the “Tool Kit” and an accompanying “Loss Matrix” aimed at quantifying housing and land-related material and non-material costs in order to seek compensation for rights’ violations.

Representatives of different groups presented their experiences of individual and collective struggles for land rights.

Activists present said that most Indian women must wait to become widows before they can own any land in their own names. In many cases, even widows are denied the right to inherit land.

The Hindu Succession Act 1956 does not give women the right to inherit agricultural land. Section 4.2 of this Act deserves to be struck down, as recommended by the National Commission for Women and by a Parliamentary Committee that recently examined the issue. Other personal laws also deny women land rights. Even tribal customary law denies women the right to inherit land.

According to the UP land tenure law the woman is not defined as cultivator in law. According to Advocate Sona Khan, even if you have right over the land you cannot be a cultivator. This is a serious issue and women have to fight to build in legislative amendments. This can be done by moving a bill in the Parliament. Inheritance law and practice differ from state to state. In parts of Kerala where the inheritance is from mother to daughter but the actual control over the land is of sons. Her suggestion was that the land rights should be shifted from the State list to the Central list. A woman, she said, should be able to hold land in her name wherever she has her voting rights.

Several states have in the past tried to enact legislation to deprive women of land rights. Surveys indicate that women rarely hold land. However, with male migration increasing, it is often women who are the real cultivators.

It was pointed out that without land ownership it is impossible for women to avail of most rural development schemes, since they require that the beneficiary be the owner of the land. Yet, ironically, government policy requires that 30 percent of beneficiaries of rural development schemes have to be women.

In many states, laws do not recognise women as cultivators. In this context, it was recommended that Section 71 of the U.P. Zamindari Abolition and Land Reforms Act, 1950 should be struck down.

Even in states where laws do not discriminate against women, land is generally not registered in women’s names. When a man dies intestate, the land may be registered in all his children’s names but his daughters are usually pressurized to immediately transfer their share to their brothers. It was suggested that the revenue administration should be sensitized to women’s land rights and Patwaris in particular should be given gender training so that they discourage women from signing away land. It was also suggested that such transfer of land should be treated as a sale, so that the heavy fees to be paid would be a deterrent.

In Gujarat, the Working Group for Women and Land Ownership is encouraging families where there are no sons to publicly register land in daughters’ names or will it to them in the presence of Panchayat leaders. This is meant to dissuade male cousins and uncles from grabbing the land.

The Working Group also suggests that widows should be brought together, told to bring death certificates and other documents and collectively approach the authorities for registration of land in their names.

The State’s growing tendency to take over common lands and forest lands, depriving people of usufructory rights, was deplored. It was pointed out that the State had taken over both de facto and de jure land rights. The situation in states like Uttaranchal, where cultivable land is limited, was deplorable.

In Andhra Pradesh, according to the Dalit Bahujan Shramik Union (DBSU), 300 crore acres of land was declared surplus under the Estate Abolition Act, 1948 but when the land was redistributed, nothing was given to the Dalits. It was decades later that surplus land under ceiling laws was allotted to deprived groups, with 50 percent reserved for Scheduled Castes and Tribes, 30 percent for Backward Castes, 10 percent for minority and 10 percent for the general category. However, much of the land was reappropriated by powerful landlords through various means.

Recently, legal protections for temples with large landholdings have been removed and land is now available for the Andhra Pradesh government to redistribute. With the implementation of the A.P. Assigned Lands (Prohibition on Transfer) Act 1977, more than 4000 acres have been declared as surplus. These lands could be redistributed to landless Dalits, with the registration in women’s names.

On the issue of denial of tribal women’s land rights through customary law, it was recommended that the National Commission for Women be urged to send a fact-finding team to Jharkhand. The group Saheli Adhyan Kendra was asked to collect cases of violations and send them to NCW for investigation. It was also felt that there is a need to challenge the issue through the courts, so that the adverse precedent set in a badly fought Supreme Court case is set aside and women’s rights upheld.

The group Ekta Parishad also referred to many cases of denial of land rights to women, both tribal and non-tribal. Among these were cases where women had collectively grabbed land decades ago but still had no legal rights to it, and others where women had grown trees for firewood but had no right to the wood when the trees were ready to be cut. In Madhya Pradesh, they said, fathers frequently make a will to deprive daughters of land. Alternatively, they divide it among sons while they are alive and ask daughters to sign away their rights.

Ekta Parishad also reported cases such as that of the Kanha National Park where people of 19 villages were displaced when the area was declared a sanctuary. The result is displacement, migration and destitution. People living in the buffer zone around the sanctuary have practically no rights to the forest produce but face threats to themselves and their crops from the wild animals. Women who have gone into the sanctuary have been raped and men beaten.

Greater transparency and consultation with the people was demanded in all cases where Governments propose to dispossess and displace people.

A major recommendation that emerged was that Panchayats should be genuinely empowered by transferring all 29 subjects listed in the 73rd Amendment to Panchayats, including the subject of land. It was felt that women would be in a better position to secure their rights through Panchayats in which they have one-third representation and hold posts of authority.

The Van Panchayat model of Uttaranchal was recommended for universal adoption, with women being given collective responsibility for management and control of forest lands and village commons.

The Mahilawadi scheme was also recommended as a pilot scheme to give women group rights to a common piece of land for collective cultivation or other income generation and subsistence activities.

Women’s groups like Mahila Samakhya reported that their experience was that where government allotted women land, it was usually wasteland. By the time they had developed it, using their own resources, the lease period was over and the now productive land was taken away.

Long-term leases, a one-time grant for improvement of the land and a revolving fund were among the recommendations made for promoting women’s collective land-based economic activities.

It was also recommended that women form a cooperative or other legal entity to which the State can transfer ownership of land. Women members of the cooperative would have non-transferable but inheritable rights to such land.

It was recommended that apart from group ownership, women should be allotted joint pattas with men in all redistribution and rehabilitation schemes.


At a post-Hearing meeting of activist groups formal affirmation was given to the platform Consult for Land Rights, with interested groups being designated as Partners. Shivani Bhardwaj was chosen as Coordinator and she offered to house the Secretariat for the next three months in her NGO Saathi.

The Dalit Bahujan Shramik Union offered to host a regional meeting for the southern states. This was discussed in a one-to-one meeting with the NCW representative. The details will be worked out shortly.

All members were invited to a strategy meeting being held by the Working Group for Women and Land Ownership, a network of 17 organisations based in Gujarat, in June.

It was suggested that a discussion group could be set up on the Internet for mutual consultations. A website was also a possibility.

It was decided that Manju Agarwal, Director of Mahila Samakhya, Uttar Pradesh would represent Consult for Land Rights at the UNIFEM Hearing in June 2005. One or two other members would also attend the event.

Fund raising activities for Consult and its partners were discussed, with suggestions that both individual and joint proposals could be drawn up.

A common strategy was evolved for advocacy and a public campaign (see section on “The Way Forward”).

***Case Study section and Lobbying Position Paper included here in the full report***

Consult on Women and Land Rights includes:

Asia Pacific Women Watch, SARP HIC-HLRN, Asia Pacific Women and Law Development, Angikar Bangladesh, National Land Rights Concern Group Nepal, Society for Partners in Development, ICWR,CWDS,CSRC, PAIRVI, NACDOR, India Women’s Watch , Jagori, Joint Women’s Program, Social Development Foundation, Sathi all for partnerships, Mahila Dakshita Samiti, Action Aid India, Ekta Parishad, Mahila Samakhya AP and UP, Dalit Bahujana Shramick Union, Working Group for Women and Land Ownership, Mamta Sanstha, Sainio Ka Sangathan, Sri Bhuneshwari Mahila Ashram, Pragati Sheel Mahila Manch, Sambandh Network, Prayas, Mahila Kalyan Sanstha, Himalayan Community Forestry Centre, Maati, Mahila Samakhya,Srijan, Sahyog, Dynamic Action Group, Adithi for Women, IWID, Nirmana and Saheli Adhyan Kendra.

For more information contact

Consult for women and Land Rights

E-09 Anand Lok
Mayur Vihar Phase I
New Delhi 110091

Tel: +91-11-22750914
E-mail: CWLR@yahoogroups.com