Women’s land rights (WLR) have been and continue to be a live agenda in social development discourse of India. The importance of WLR has been discussed in the context of agriculture; poverty reduction; reduction in gender based violence; women’s well-being and agency. There now exists a vast academic literature and experience of collective action to point that women’s land rights can significantly contribute to achieving greater gender equality. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) capture the above under three targets that are connected to the goals of ending poverty and hunger, and of achieving greater gender equality.
Women’s land rights in India are mediated through various personal laws and customary practices. The Hindu personal law in its present form allows women the right to own land and independently manage its affairs.2 Presently, the law includes ownership of agricultural land by women, thanks to the amendment in 2005. However, even now states like Uttar Pradesh and a few others do not follow the amendment.
The Muslim personal law does not allow or women’s share in agricultural land, except in a few states which have recently amended this.3 Muslim women get one third of the share of the estate property, while men get two thirds of it.
Under the Indian Succession Act (ISA) 19254 Christian widows get one third of the estate property and the male and female linear descendants get two thirds of it, equally divided among them. The Tribals have their own customary practices, which typically deny women their land share, again, barring a few exceptional situations.
While the personal laws and tenurial land laws make unequal provisions for women’s land share, the societal practices irrespective of these laws, deny women their land share even when it is permitted under law. Land transfer in India occurs mostly through inheritance and women face severe discrimination from their families in this respect.
Several research studies have shown that families are most likely to deny the married daughters, widows, unmarried women their land share in estate and tenurial land. The other two mechanisms, namely, state distribution of land jointly to women and men, and market incentivisation for women in buying land are of very limited scope in India
As the country has embraced the SDGs, the importance of Women’s land rights in particular to agricultural land can’t be ignored as it finds mention in 3 of the 17 SDG targets. While the progress in India on the legislative front has been significant, time has come to specifically remove barriers in law and implementation. This would not only help achieve SDGs, but will also enhance women’s empowerment, and bring about social transformation.24 Removing barriers to granting of land rights to women is a call not only for governments but also to civil society organisations and social movements since many of the barriers are rooted in social and cultural practices.
This policy brief outlines the gaps that exist in the realisation of women’s land rights on agricultural land and calls for immediate collective action aimed at removing the structural barriers in inheritance, leasing, and joint ownership of privately held land in favour of women.