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Power and Potential: New report on women’s rights to community forests

Equal rights and opportunities for women are not only matters of justice and dignity. When women and girls have equal rights in law and practice, their communities and countries also benefit. Indigenous and rural women make up more than half of the 2.5 billion people who customarily own and use the world’s community lands, yet they have been largely absent from discussions of women’s property rights and broader development agendas.

A new analysis from RRI provides an unprecedented assessment of 80 legal frameworks regulating indigenous and rural women’s community forest rights in 30 developing countries comprising 78 percent of the developing world’s forests. 

The report reveals that governments are not providing equal rights and protections to indigenous and rural women, and are failing to meet their international commitments to do so. The findings also show that secure community land rights and the legal advancement of women often go hand in hand. Simply put: legal frameworks acknowledging communities as forest owners also provide the greatest protections for women’s rights.

Indigenous and rural women have made major gains in asserting their rights and strengthening their communities despite the absence of legal protections, yet this progress and the forests they protect are vulnerable. Scaling-up progress to respect community land rights and achieving the host of benefits community ownership provides to global development and climate goals can only be realized if women’s irghts within communities are recognized and respected. Securing women’s rights to community lands therefore offers the most promising path toward peace, prosperity, and sustainability in the forested and rural lands of the world.

Rights and Resources Initiatives - Power and Potential - illustration around indigenous and rural women

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Key findings

Governments are not respecting indigenous and rural women’s tenure rights and are failing to meet international obligations to do so in all 30 low- and middle-income countries assessed.

All of the countries analyzed have ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and yet not one meets the minimum standards established in the convention.

Of the 30 low- and middle-income countries assessed, results for the three overarching rights that affect all women in a country:

Only eight of the 30 countries have intestate inheritance laws that provide equal protections.
More than a third of the countries assessed (India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mali, Myanmar, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Senegal, Tanzania, and Zambia) have laws that legally discriminate against daughters, widows, and/or women in consensual unions, or defer to religious or customary law without safeguarding women’s inheritance rights.

Constitutional equal protection: 93 percent of the countries examined prohibit gender-based discrimination or explicitly guarantee women equal protection under the constitution.
Property rights: Only seventeen of the 30 countries analyzed specifically affirm women’s property rights.
Inheritance: Only eight of the 30 countries assessed mandate that daughters, widows, and unmarried women in consensual unions have equal rights to inherit alongside their male counterparts.

There are no clear winners when comparing Asia, Africa, and Latin America:

  • Countries reviewed in Africa (11) provide the most consistent affirmation of women’s property rights and greatest recognition of women’s community-level dispute-resolution rights, but they also afford indigenous and rural women the weakest community-level inheritance and voting rights.
  • Of the three regions, community-specific legal frameworks in the 10 Asian countries provide the highest level of protection for women’s community-level inheritance, voting, and leadership rights.
  • None of the Asian or African countries in the study recognize the overarching rights of unmarried women in consensual unions to inherit land through intestate succession (inheritance rights in the absence of a will), and between 45-50 percent of assessed countries in both regions do not equitably protect women’s inheritance rights.
  • The nine countries in Latin America provide the strongest protections for women’s overarching inheritance rights and greater recognition of women’s community-level membership rights, but lag behind countries in Africa and Asia with respect to women’s community-level leadership rights and the affirmation of women’s property rights in overarching laws.
  • Eight of the nine Latin American countries assessed provide equal statutory protection for the overarching inheritance rights of daughters, widows, and women in consensual unions; these are the only countries among the 30 reviewed LMICs that safeguard the inheritance rights of women in consensual unions.

There is a particularly pressing need for legal reforms regarding women’s governance (voting and leadership) and inheritance rights in community-specific legal regimes. Inheritance rights are the most ignored, while leadership rights are the least protected.

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Case Studies Accompanying the Report

  • Indonesia is one of only two countries assessed that does not guarantee women equal protection under the constitution. Inequitable laws and the expansion of agribusiness threaten the customary practices of many communities who treat women as equals in managing customary lands and resources.
  • In Liberia, the promise of Africa’s first female president has fallen short: across the country, community and rural women have been cut off from the decision-making processes that affect them. Many are losing the lands and resources they rely on.
  • In Peru, women are raising their voices to call attention to their unique role as forest managers, and advocate for full participation in land titling projects that would affect them.

Download the report (PDF)

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