Project: When Women Do Not Own Land: Land Ownership and Women’s Empowerment in Sri Lanka

Land is widely recognised as an important catalyst for women’s empowerment, yet not much is known about women’s private land ownership and the importance of land ownership for women’s empowerment. In this study, we explore this association using primary data collected from 2000 households in Jaffna and Kandy districts, Sri Lanka. We chose these districts for several reasons including the uniqueness of the customary laws that govern land rights and tenure (Thesawalmai law in Jaffna and Kandyan law in Kandy), the differences in the ethnoreligious compositions, as well as their geographic contexts and the economic conditions.

Instead of constructing an empowerment index as the outcome variable interest, we look at the associations between land ownership and different factors that typically make up such an index. Specifically, we look at the following outcome variables: women’s decision to participate in the labour force, autonomy in decisions about household expenditure, participation in decision-making about land, and perceptions about social status and own happiness. In investigating the association between these outcome variables and land ownership, we control for the characteristics of the respondent, her marital and household variables as well as those related to her social networks and own perceptions.

Key findings

Land ownership and women’s Labour Force Participation (LFP)

We find that land ownership does not have a significant effect on a woman’s decision to take up paid work. In fact, ownership of residential property tends to discourage women’s LFP in both districts. Economic necessity is typically what drives women to seek paid work in poorer countries. Thus, we posit that the inverse association between property ownership and women’s LFP might reflect choice, and not a necessity. It could be that bringing property into the marriage is a woman’s contribution to the household finances, thereby obviating the need for her to join the labour force.

Land ownership and decision-making about household expenses

Land ownership also does not seem to have much of an effect on a woman’s ability to make autonomous decisions about expenditure pertaining to food, education, health, and household maintenance. Some effect of land ownership on women’s autonomy is observed only for maintenance expenditure in Jaffna. This could be because significantly more women from Jaffna, compared to Kandy, hold legal title to land, which might empower them to take autonomous decisions about maintenance expenses. Furthermore, many households in Jaffna have come to own property through dowry, and such property is usually jointly owned by the respondents and their spouses, unlike in Kandy where joint titles are less common. Joint ownership of property also might strengthen women’s ability to make independent decisions about household maintenance, in Jaffna.

However, there is some evidence in favour of the positive effects of sole ownership of property on women’s bargaining power within the household in both districts. Moreover, women from households that own agricultural land are also more likely to have higher bargaining power in making independent decisions about household expenditure. However, one must be cautious in the interpretation of the results here, because women in agricultural households might have to make decisions if their spouses are busy working the agricultural lands.

Land ownership and land-related decision-making

Land ownership is positively associated with women’s participation in land-related decisions, unlike with decisions regarding household expenditure. Clearly, legal title to land makes it more likely that women are always included in important decisions about disposing of land either through sale or passing it on in both districts. Joint ownership is particularly influential in strengthening a woman’s bargaining position in such decisions, particularly in Jaffna. These patterns reinforce the merits of joint ownership of land and property between spouses. Yet, a lower inclination to include women in the use of land as collateral, and even in renting or renovating land, suggests that women might not be consulted even if they legally own land unless it is absolutely necessary. On the other hand, parental property ownership encourages women’s full participation in land-related decisions, highlighting the intergenerational benefits of land ownership for women.

Land ownership and perceptions of social status and happiness

Land ownership tends to be positively associated with a woman’s perception of her household’s social status within the neighbourhood. But the patterns of association are not the same in both districts. For example, while joint land ownership is seen to elevate women’s perception of social status in Jaffna, the reverse is true in Kandy. These results possibly point to the different social values attached to joint ownership of land in the two districts. Land ownership is not significantly correlated with women’s happiness in both districts. However, in general, land ownership is more consistently positively associated with women’s happiness in Jaffna than in Kandy. The inverse correlation between agricultural land ownership and women’s happiness might allude to economic distress or drudgery of agricultural work.