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

About the project

This project seeks to generate evidence-based research on the relationship between land security and women’s empowerment with a view to influencing policy, practice and public awareness in post-war Sri Lanka. There has not been a detailed study of how access to land can enhance women’s empowerment since the war ended in 2009. The study was the first of its kind in post-war Sri Lanka. The evidence will be used to influence policy, practice and public awareness of women’s empowerment, locally and globally.

As the project develops, additional components have been added to respond to the changing political context. A documentary film, ‘Anatomy of a Protest’ explores the social protest movement that erupted spontaneously in 2022, in the wake of an unprecedented economic crisis. An article on ‘War Memories’ was developed, and a second documentary and article on ‘Contested Religious Spaces’ is being developed.

Project approach

The primary objective of the study is to explore the associations between land ownership and women’s empowerment in Sri Lanka. A mixed methods approach is used for data collection and analysis. The quantitative survey collected primary data from a random sample of 2000 households in Jaffna and Kandy districts. The qualitative research component conducted involved 103 in-depth qualitative interviews in four districts – Batticaloa, Jaffna, Kandy, Matara. The districts for the study have been selected purposively to provide insights into the customary laws in place in Sri Lanka, as well as ethno-religious diversity.

The quantitative study mainly focusses on the economic dimensions of women’s empowerment, while the qualitative analysis delves into economic, social and political aspects of women’s empowerment and their agency within the household.

Key findings

Land ownership does not seem to influence women’s labour force participation.

Only a few women own agricultural land. Although most women recognise land as an asset that can generate income, women who own residential property are less likely to be economically active.  Agency on land use is more apparent for women in home gardening relative to large-scale cultivation. Even if the land is owned by the women, the men predominantly make decisions related to land use.

Legal title to land seems to encourage women’s full involvement in household decisions related to land.

Holding legal title seems to have a positive effect on women’s full involvement in land-related decisions. Joint titles particularly seem to make it more likely that women are included in decisions to sell, rent, or pass on land to inheritors. However, women are relatively less likely to be included in decisions about pledging land as collateral, and even in decisions related to renting and renovating.

Land appears to be more of a status symbol than an economic resource for women.

Land ownership has a positive effect on women mainly through its social value than its value as an economic resource. In fact, many women are of the opinion that it is difficult to tackle land-related complications without the help of men.

The type of land women own might play a role in the economic benefits that accrue to them from land ownership.

Residential property might strengthen their bargaining power within the household, and productive land ownership could catalyse their participation in economic activities.

Land ownership is a necessary but insufficient condition for women’s empowerment and social wellbeing in Sri Lanka.

Even if women’s land ownership is strengthened, land ownership alone cannot help women transform power relations and overcome gender disparities to achieve agency, empowerment and social wellbeing. In addition to land ownership, knowledge and awareness on how to use this right to one’s advantage, as a bargaining power within the family and community is also needed.

Recommendations

Sri Lankan government and development agencies.

Development interventions that involve providing new houses and land (in situations of relocation or resettlement) should focus on encouraging joint titling for potential beneficiaries.

Sri Lankan government, development agencies and think tanks.

There should be a focused discussion on what is required in terms of ensuring land ownership and control of land for women. Such a consultative process could help in identifying and strengthen existing laws which are not gender discriminatory, and also in removing certain discriminatory clauses introduced during the colonial period. Further, political interventions in land reform and resettlement processes need to be constrained to ensure that existing laws are fully implemented.

Sri Lankan government.

The government must improve the economic utility of land to women, and sensitise the institutional environment and address barriers to empower women to use land as economic resources without having to rely too much on male support.

Sri Lankan government, development agencies, non-governmental organisations.

Education on one’s land rights and awareness of utilisation of land must be strengthened. Women’s agency is predominantly seen in home gardening related land use, mostly for own consumption, while men have more control over agricultural land use for the market. Therefore, more capacity building for women, raising awareness on agricultural land utilisation, education on women’s rights and bargaining power within the household and society need to be adequately provided for land ownership to be truly beneficial to women.

Financial intermediaries, especially banks.

Formal financial systems must recognise and include women in credit disbursement processes, especially those involving land as collateral. Revision into their procedures to consider joint consultations with the borrower and his spouse or the principal female relative during the loan processing period might be an effective way to promote the inclusion of women in decisions to pledge land as collateral for loans.

Research organisations and think tanks.

More research and collaborations with women on the ground are required to understand how land ownership can strengthen different aspects of women’s empowerment and wellbeing. A strong context-specific and nuanced understanding of the realities under which women have the potential for agency is necessary to inform and strengthen policies and institutions in relation to land rights.