Reducing inequality in land access, a way of contributing to gender equity?

Reducing inequality in land access, a way of contributing to gender equity?

René Mendoza V., René Rodríguez F., Ruth Aguilar P., Selmira Flores and María A. Sieza


Currently there are more women that have access to land, but their access continues to be unequal: women control 13.3% of total land. Most of their properties are classified in the strata of ownership of less than 20 manzanas (mz). There are four ways of accessing land: family, community, State and markets. Women access more land through the family; men do it more through community, State and markets. The family way means that they receive it as an inheritance. This institution of inheritances, however, is practiced to women´s disadvantage, due to the mentality of our societies and its institutions; in other words, the land is left to the male sons, not to the women. To reduce the inequality in access to land through the family, that institution of leaving inheritances exclusively to men needs to be deconstructed, in such as way that society, to the extent that it organizes, would demand a law through which sons and daughters receive inheritance equally. This would help to improve the lives of the families, increase production, reduce gender violence, decrease inequity and promote organizational participation.

Why does this inequal access to land through inheritance persist and intensify? Why is this transformation in women´s favor happening so slowly – and at times so adversely? Ousting the exclusive institution of inheritance is a very slow process, in spite of the fact that the population has more formal education, migrates more and has more access to internet. This has to do with the mentality of society, conceptions about family, work, land and the role of women and men in terms of the land, conceptions where religious ideas also have an influence. And it has to do with the fact that national and international organizations and institutions overlook the topic of inheritance in their policies and strategies, because they consider it something “natural” and “private.”

We propose reforming the inheritance law so that sons and daughters have equal rights to be legatees. There are three challenges to doing this: deconstructing the institution of inheritances with families and with organizations and institutions, organizing to achieve this reform, and organizing to implement it in its material dimension (land) and its immaterial dimension (values that accompany the management of the land). This implies working with women and their families, and listening to them, instead of spinning out theories entangled in the idea of land as a marketable asset separate from social actors. It also means asking ourselves: Is reducing inequality in land access a way of contributing to gender equity?

1.     Re-concentration and unequal access to land

In this section we present data from Agricultural Censuses 2001 and 2011, where the question was asked “who runs the farm”. We point out that “running the farm” (or being the principal farmer of the home) and “being an owner” are not equivalent terms.

On a national level between 2001 and 2011 women as the principal farmers increased from 18.1% to 23.3%. Their access to land also increased: from 11.7% to 13.3%. Nevertheless, this apparent improvement was diluted with the observation that the reconcentration of land, begun in the 1990s, got worse between 2001 and 2011, and with that gender inequality grew. Between 2001 and 2011 principal farmers with less than 20 mz went from controlling 9.8% to 11.2% of the land; those who had between 20 and 300 mz under their control went from 56.3% to 52.7%, and those who has more than 200 mz increased their control from 33.8% to 36%. This growing inequality has the face of a woman: the gap between women farmers and men farmers increased to the degree that the ownership strata was larger; the concentration of farmers in the lower strata (0-5 mz) grew, going from 33.3% to 46.7%, particularly women farmers: from 45.9% to 62% of the total principle farmers, a strata that had only 2.7% of the total land area, and where women controlled barely 0.6% in 2011; and as a general rule, the bigger the strata, the smaller the land for women, who go from controlling 23.7% of the land mass in the strata 0-5 mzs, to barely controling 7.9% of the strata that has more than 500 mz.

1.1  Findings

In the last ten years (2001-2011) the reconcentration of land has gotten worse. In this period, of all farmers, women farmers increased by 5.23 points, and their access to land by 1.6 points, a Pyrrhic improvement that probably was the result of the efforts of international aid and the State in favor of joint propiety ownership, where it was promoted that some members of the cooperatives would formally share their land with their spouses, and where funds were created to help the women buy land.

This improvement in number of principal women farmers could be coherent with the hypothesis of the “feminization of agriculture”, mentioned by some authors like Lastarría-Cornhiel (2008) and Katz (2003)[1]. In other words, that the number of women in farm work and in agroindustry increased, be it because of migration, structural adjustment policies, or other reasons, and that – by way of hypothesis – in dry agrarian areas and due to the increasing flow of remittances, women moved to different agricultural activities (e.g. vegetables), while in wet agrarian zones and the agricultural frontier, women were in crops like coffee and the cattle agroindustry (e.g. as workers in cheesemakers, milk processers).

This improvement hides the intensification of gender inequality. While principal women farmers increased by 5.23 points among total farmers in 2011, 62% of all of them are located in the 0.1-5 mz strata of land ownership, 16.4 points more than in 2001 (from 45.91 to 62.05%), controling only 0.6% of the total land in the country. In other words, principal women farmers increased as a whole, but with more inequality than in 2001, which means more subdivision of the properties.

Why does this unequal access to land persist and get worse? Why is this transformation in favor of women so slow – and at times so adverse?

2.     Patterns that support the inequality

Land is obtained four ways: family, community, State and markets. Women acquire land mostly from the family (inheritance); men, through community, State and markets[2]. If inheritances went equally to sons and daughters, the inequality would be reduced substantially, even though not entirely, because the other three mechanisms for access remain – community, State and markets – that also sustain gender inequality[3].

2.1  Evolution of policies that have worsened the inequality

In the decade of the 1980s the State implemented the largest agrarian reform in the country. The result indicated that only 8% of the individual beneficiaries, and 11% in the collective modality were women. Likewise in the decade of the 1990s an agrarian reform was done to benefit the people demobilized from the war (members of the National Resistance and the Army), that included the titling of the land in a joint fashion: only 7.8% of the lands titled were joint titles. More recently in 2010 a law was approved for the creation of a land fund for women through the market (credit for the purchase of land); five years after its approval, the law had still not been applied. These three facts reveal a breakthrough: the intention of the agrarian reforms of 1980 and 1990 was to promote equal access, but the state and social institutionality ended up supporting the inequality. The law for the land fund is an enormous breakthrough, but the delay in its application is an expression of the rigidity of that institutionality, and surely when that law finally gets applied, the respective institutionalities of the State, the markets and society (community and family) also will play their roles.

What does this rigid institutionality consist in, that makes good institutions provide unequal results? In the next section we will respond to this question, more than anything from the purview of family inheritances, something that probably permeates the other institutions.

2.2  Institutions that support the inequality.

Inheritance, landed property, is a centuries old institution. To understand the conditions on which this institution is based, case studies were done of 12 families in the muncipalities of Rio Blanco and Somotillo. These conditions have to do with the way family, work, land and the role of women and men are conceptualized; they are conditions that are incrusted in the mentality of men and women, conceptions influenced by age old religious beliefs, and practices legitimized by national and international organizations and institutions, that consider inheritances as something “natural” and “private.”

The family is conceptualized as sacred. The father of the G-Z family of Rio Blanco said:

My family is very close and docile. This daughter of mine is another story; since they gave land to her husband, I am giving her cattle…I gave my other son a farm and I gave him cattle to sharecrop.

The younger daughter (24 years old, single and a professional) from the same family disagrees: “It is almost always seen this way, until the children have a home. I would like him to tell me, ´this is your part, work it´, but as a family you don´t see that”. The condition is having a home, and then the inheritance is differentiated; in the case of the married daughter, they wait to see if her husband will receive an inheritance, surely following the rule that “the man supports the woman”; in the case that he does receive an inheritance, then they will give cattle to the daughter. In the case of the son, they leave him the farm, and in addition they support him in the beginning by giving him cattle to share crop. The single daughter meets the condition of having a home, and even though she has studied, the inequality is not seen, and she does not fight for her inheritance, but allows her father to decide. The voice of the mother does not appear in the decision of the father, not even in the tacit complaint of the daughter, maybe because of the prevalence of another soceital rule: “a woman does not speak in front of her man.” This reveals a profound gender inequality within the heart of the family: the father decides, and his decision is awaited and obeyed as the sacred word; the daughter with a home is “another story”; the son with a home receives a farm and begins his path as a rancher supported by his father (“sharecroping the cattle”), because he is from the family; the single daughter, even though she has studied and is of age, “waits”. The sacralization of the family structure is rooted in religious beliefs: “the husband is the head of the woman”, an institutionality that also is considered to be sacred.

This sacred decision of the father of the family is based in the idea of work. The father of the S-P family in Somotillo said:

It would have to be shared among them, because everything that you do, you do for your children, but this son is the one who has helped me, he has not abandoned me, he is with me all the time. The others have left me and so I have thought about helping the one who has helped me more[4].

The mother disagreed, but demurred: “It is good to give them their part in life, so that they can be getting their things, separately, true, but the owner does not want to.” The word “help” refers to the work on the farm (land). The phrase “he has not abandoned me” denotes tacit loyalty (submission), like the phrase “The owner does not want to”, where the wife does not appear as a co-owner. One of the sons, talking about the work of the women of the family, said: “Well, let´s say they participate when we already have the crop here, because we remove the corn from the cob by hand…and they are there with the staff…noting down all the grains they are removing, and involved in the commerce as well.” Previously the mother had said, “I would milk the cows, I would help my father herd the cows. I would milk, from a very young age, now I help in various things as well.” This work (milking) did not serve her either to receive an inheritance from her parents. The inheritance, consequently, is for the one who has worked on the farm and has been submissive, and implies that milking, removing the grains from the cob and selling what is produced does not count as work, except when the son is obligated to do it. Those who have left express their voice (“voice” in the sense that Hirschman gives it, see note 5), seeking other options apart from the land, which disqualifies them from receiving an inheritance. In this family most of the inheritance will be for one of the three sons, and probably for none of the daughters, because the key criteria is “work of men+ submission”.

In different circumstances, the A-A family of Rio Blanco decided to leave an equal inheritance to sons and daughters. The way decisions were made in the respective families of origin of the father and mother had an impact on this: he as the oldest brother was left in charge of the farm with the death of his parents, and in eight meetings with his brothers and sisters they decided to divide it up into equal parts. In her family (wife) her parents also died without having decided the inheritance, and the oldest brother was left in charge, but: “My brother said that he was not going to turn over the farm because it was costing him, that he was working it. He did not give my younger brother any space, and afterwards he said that my brother did not like working on the farm.” What stands out is that she worked on the farm: “I worked the machete with my Mom…we made gardens, bean patches…” This work did not allow her to be a legatee of the land, even though that argument that “I work” her older brother used to exclude the younger one, and it stands out that not even she herself considered she had the right to that inheritance. How is it then that this A-A couple shared their inheritance equally? Probably what weighed on her (the wife) was the experience of being deprived of her right to the inheritance in spite of having worked on the farm, and what weighed on him was having achieved a joint decision among brothers and sisters. And maybe the determining factor was that she – counting on the loyalty of her sons and daughters – forgave him for having left for two years with another woman, while she gained the respect of the entire family raising her younger inlaws as if they were her own children, a situation which changed the correlation of forces in the family, and this favored them making the decision to leave their land equally to their sons and daughters.

The origin of the inheritance weighs on the decision in terms of the sons and daughters. In another case, the S-P family, the mother did not receive an inheritance in spite of the fact that she worked in the field; the father received land from the State through the agrarian reform, but on the death of his parents, his brothers excluded him from the inheritance. That experience of having been excluded, both he and she, naturalized the institution of inheritance as unequal in nature. In the case of the G-Z family, he received an inheritance from his mother, who left it to him and his sister in equal parts, and the same thing occurred on the death of the father: he left cattle that also was shared equally; in contrast the mother was excluded from the inheritance of her family, because her father left it only to his sons. In that family, with the joint title issued by the Church, and in spite of the fact that his mother and father left him and his sister an inheritance shared equally, the institution that “the man supports the woman”, reinforced by the same Church that encouraged them to have a joint title, leads them to make decisions of inequality for their sons and daughters. In another case, the C-G family decided to leave their inheritance equally to sons and daughters, because he received an inheritance from his maternal grandmother, who raised him because his mother formed another family, an experience that made him become aware: “Just as it was given to one, so one should give to their own.” He is grateful to his grandmother, that left him an inheritance even though he was a grandchild; it was not so important whether the daughters had worked or not on the farm, given that, except for one, the others were kept from working in the field to “protect them”, and to encourage them to study, which is the reason why today they are professors. That “protection” probably consisted in keeping them safe from sexual harassment that women tend to suffer in the countryside.

The origin of the property also has an influence on reproducing equitable relationships, when the inheritance comes from a woman and the person that receives it has awareness about what that means. In the case of the M-A family of Somotillo, the mother said: “Here we used to do everything, we would plant corn, sesame, we would clean, among all the family, we would rent oxen.” In other words, she worked. Later on she told us:

My great Aunt told me: ‘Here you are going to make your house, here you are going to live, and I told her that after she died they were going to show me the road. She reacted: ‘whoever does not want to have anything to do with you, let him kill you. So since we are nine brothers and sisters, we divided it up into nine parts, and since I had the right of possession, I stayed here.

This step of equality only happened when she got the consent of his mother, who in spite of the decision of the grandmother, tried to benefit her children:

For my Mom to give me rights I had to pressure her. I told her: ‘I cannot work because you support your male sons, not me’. Humililated I told her: ‘Either give to me or I am leaving. So she told me that she was going to give to all of us.

Here the sacredness of the family (decision of the owner, the grandmother) is combined with the right of possession as a life or death mandate, having worked in the field and in the home, and above all, having awareness of her rights to the point of demanding her inheritance.

Finally the idea of inheritance as a right of sons and daughters appears among families that leave their inheritance in an egalitarian manner. In the M-A family, the mother is conclusive: “who gave birth to that female, who gave birth to that male? It was me. So I say, if the female has rights, so does the male”. The same awareness we find in the A-A family; the mother said: “…if they give two manzanas to one, you have to give two manzanas to the girl as well, because all are children, all have the right”. How important it is to wake up, to have awareness! Both cases illustrate the approach of making their own way, which includes reconstructing their life as a couple and uniting their families. Both families awoke due to rule number 11: daughters and sons have equal rights (Box 1), by which they gave new meaning to the other rules. There, as Hirschman would say (1970[5]), courage (voice) and departure coexisted in order to make loyalty possible: the rules were reinterpreted (right of possession, sacred decision of the family, work is on the land and outside of it).

Box 1 summarizes the rules the govern inheritances. These rules do not act by themselves, they are interpreted by actors in accordance with their circumstances: there are cases where working the land does not empower neither women nor men to be legatees; there are cases where waiting without demanding an inheritance is counterproductive. They are rules that lead to unequal access to land, that postpone the decision about when to inherit as something sacred. In cases of egalitarian inheritances what stands out is the fact of having an awareness of the rule that each person has rights.

3.     Policies and strategies

The topic of inheritance must be worked on as soon as possible to reduce inequality in land access. The concentration of land is made worse when the land is not well used by the families, and they are not well used when families take a long time in deciding on the inheritance, and when it is divided up in an unequal manner. It is well known that small production is more intensive than large properties, and given that 62% of women farmers are in the strata of between 0 to 5 manzanas of land, we conclude that this strata has the largest production per manzana, mostly because of the influence of women.

We propose improving the censuses, and two policies and three strategies around land access. Concerning the censuses, we make our own Deere´s proposal (2011)[6], that the censuses should include the question of who are the owners of the land, and what was the mechanism by which they accessed that property. Deere observed that no country of Central America has included that question in their censuses. Its importance is obvious for focusing policies in favor of a more egalitarian society.

In terms of policies, there is a brief study[7] on leasing that suggests two policies within the framework of “leasing plus”, which we take up and expand on in what follows. One, introducing a law of egalitarian inheritance, so that there is no disparity between daughters and sons[8]. Two, introducing a leasing law with fifteen and even twenty year lengths, along with a legal guarantee that those contracts might be honored for the number of years that the parties agreed on. These laws would allow the daughters and sons to receive inheritance equally, and work it directly or rent it out if they want to work in other jobs, because in both ways the productivity and ecological sustainability would be more feasible if the small producers are the leasers. And in the case of the large business leasers, it would be possible to stipulate guarantees to prevent their activity from eroding soils[9].

Nevertheless, we can have better laws and not apply them correctly, or evade them, deciding inheritances in favor of some, and not in favor of others, under the figure of “land sale.” Only social processes that make progress toward equality can produce and apply egalitarian laws. Therefore, we propose the following steps: First, that organizations (NGOs, cooperatives and associations) and institutions (State, microfinance and banking) committed to sustainable development jointly contribute with families to deconstruct the habit of leaving inheritances only to the sons. They can do this in reflection spaces based on studies that come from immersion processes; they can be reflections on the specific history of each family and territory, about how that institution of inheritance has been maintained, emphasizing the variability that there has been from generation to generation in specific contexts. This deconstruction process will allow each participant to become aware that inheritance is an institution made by human beings, and therefore it is changeable. This step will lead us to understand the justice of rule 11: daughters and sons have equal rights.

Secondly, working with the churches so that they become aware that decontextualized interpretations of the Bible can generate social inequities, something contrary to the ideals of any Church. The rule that “the man is the head of the woman, says the Lord”, taken from the New Testament (Ephesians 5:23) is obeyed in a decontextualized manner, in terms of both the patriarchal reality of more than two thousand years ago, as well as the scriptures themselves, because some verses later (Ephesians 5:25) it reads: “Husbands, love your women, just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her.” It does not say “hit your women”, nor does it say that only the man can decide to whom to leave the family inheritance, nor does it say that the married daughter is “another story”. The Church should be aware of the distortion of its principles and the impact that those distortions can have on the lives of the people; consequently, the Church should understand the society in which it is unfolding. If the people one day awaken, getting rid of centuries of clouds based on social habits of inequality, inheritances could have an egalitarian character, and with it society can achieve greater equity, something that the Church also seeks.

Thirdly, that these organizations and institutions contribute with policies and strategies so that rural families might organize themselves, be that in cooperatives, associations or other community modalities, understanding that structural factors like the institutional change of inheritances, and then work on the land require a series of tangible resources (e.g. credit) and intangible ones (e.g. knowledge), that they can access when they organize. A woman can access an inheritance in her family if she has allies, which is more possible if she is organized (if she belongs to a cooperative, association or other community modality), and/or if she has the support of institutions that grant credit to their families under the condition that they leave it to their daughters and sons equally. Those same cooperatives and associations can include in their statutes the fact that their members commit to leave their inheritances equally to their daughters and sons, and stipulating that gender violence will be a reason for member explusions.

Laws that comes from decision making processes of the population (personal sphere), and from the struggles of organized movements, that in turn influence intrafamily decisions, will be just laws, and will be laws that get applied[10]. For that reason, families will take their steps, in large measure, if they have strategic allies, aware that these realities have to be studied as processes mediated by power relations (“social orders”), and if they have the courage to accompany these families in their struggles for decades. Each organization or institution that works with rural families must have this long term perspective and this commitment to be a strategic ally.

Building processes that generate egalitarian patterns without a doubt will be beneficial for all of humanity.


*René Mendoza ( is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (, associate researcher of the IOB-Antwerp University (Belgium) and the Nitlapan-UCA Research and Development Institute (Nicaragua). René Rodríguez is a researcher on a grant at Nitlapan-UCA. Ruth Aguilar is a consultant and expert on gender. Selmira Flores is the Director of the Nitlapan-UCA research program. María A. Sieza is the director of the Rural Legal Services program of Nitlapan-UCA.

[1] See: Lastarria-Cornhiel, S. (2008). Feminización de la agricultura en América Latina y África. Chile: RIMISP; y Katz, E. (2003). “The Changing Role of Women in the Rural Economies of Latin America”, in: Curemis II: Volume 1 – Latin America and the Caribbean. Rome: FAO.

[2] To learn more about this, see: Deere, C. D. & León, M. (2003). “The Gender Asset Gap: Land in Latin America” in: World Development 31.6. Great Britain: Elsevier Science Ltd.

[3] In Latin America, through the State, agrarian reform has benefitted more men; through the markets, women have less capital for buying land; and through community, men ended up benefitting more.

[4] Another way of expressing that loyalty we find in the son of the C-G family in Somotillo: “… I was given a plot of land for having been a responsible son. My father and his brother were raised by their grandparents, and maybe as a reward, since they were good grandkids, they left them that land as an inheritance”.

[5] Hirschman, A.O. (1970). Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[6] Deere, C.D. (2011). “Tierra y autonomía económica de la mujer rural: avances y desafíos para la investigación” en: Tierra de Mujeres. Reflexiones sobre el acceso de las mujeres rurales a la tierra en América Latina. Bolivia: Coalición Internacional para el Acceso a la Tierra.

[7] Mendoza, R. (2015). “La sequía y el arrendamiento de tierra”, en: Confidencial:

[8] In Latin America only Bolivia has a law that comes close to this proposal: their new constitution of 2009 says in article 402: “eliminating all forms of discrimination against women in land access, ownership and inheritance.” Given that it is recent, we do not have data to know if this law is really being applied.

[9] There are leases for less than a year, where the person who leases plants annual crops, which have few economic benefits for the tenant, better for the owner (value of the rent and stubble for their cattle), but the land is eroding more and more. There are also cases of large business owners who lease the land of small producers to plant peanuts and/or sugar cane for 4-5 years, after which the land is left practically useless.

[10] The experience of France, among other countries, is inspiriting. They have there is just law on inheritance and also laws for leasing for up to 18 years. The peasant movements in struggle for decades obtained these laws, which is why they are laws that are applied. See:; We are grateful to P. Merlet for this information. In the case of Bolivia, the approval of their agrarian laws and what note 8 refers to is also due to the historical struggle of the rural women´s organizations grouped together in the “Bartolina Sisa” National Federation of Original Indigenous Women Peasants of Bolivia, and the Peasant Women Coordinator from the Tropics of Cochabamba.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *