This Land is Your Land: How Do We Really Empower Women?

When it comes to empowering Third World women, one suggested path towards empowerment is the reformation and inclusion of land rights that will ensure that they do not become landless due to eviction by the government. At first glance, there appear to be several benefits; since women are perceived to be important parts of the household, it makes sense to give them control of natural resources in order to increase development and decrease poverty. With such resources, women are more likely to invest in their children's food, education, or healthcare. Additionally, older women may not be taken seriously considering their land rights (which are integral to participating in the community and health), so it is better for women to obtain them if it increases their claim to assets after their husbands' deaths. Finally, women with land rights are more likely to leave abusive relationships with partners who refuse to use condoms. The fact that they do not participate in unsafe sex means their risk of getting HIV or AIDS decreases. Thus, for many reasons (especially the promise of economic development), land rights are considered beneficial and empowering to women ("Land Tenure").

However, women's movements do not always campaign for land rights. For one, redistributing land may not necessarily lead to the feminization of agriculture and management due to regional variability. Giving land to men might help them to rise out of poverty, but women will still be impeded by sociocultural factors. Instead, some women's movements focus on access to resources, the ability to organize for labor, and (specifically, in India) eliminating the dangers of marriage (social deprivation and restriction, losing children, not being welcomed home). Additionally, land assets may not necessarily be beneficial to children's welfare since they may only be used on their father's fields and not their mother's vegetable garden. Sometimes giving land to women meant they would give it to their sons, returning to male patriarchy, particularly because they are forced to rely on more mobile men to take care of faraway land. Also, women of different castes may organize and get different results separately, so ultimately they are likely to be interested in different forms of progress ("Gender Analysis").

Additionally, there are certain links between social institutions and development discourse that affect relationships between land and poverty. For one, it is hard to enforce laws at a state that assure women's security since the land is registered in husbands' names or not formally theirs. Within certain households and communities, because of dowries, women can only own half as much as men or only have access to land after they have been abandoned, divorced, or widowed. Sometimes women are not even given dowries, with only their husband receiving a bride price. This is even worse when one considers that women are expected on a global level to make up for problems caused by the development crisis by contributing to the market and rise out of poverty caused by the actions of organizations and corporations like the WTO ("Food Sovereignty"). Ultimately, land rights alone are not enough– instead, laws addressing structural inequality are needed. Laws should acknowledge female heads of households, allow for matriliny through natal and martial relations, change how land is seen as men's right to being breadwinners, change double standard where only sisters and not brothers with land are expected to support other siblings, create childcare programs to alleviate women's work, increase women's social mobility, and make it so older and widowed women are taken seriously when inheriting land, make agriculture profitable for small female farms, and extend to other livelihoods so landless women can earn a living despite their social rank or identities.

Microfinance programs (especially those headed by NGOs) are also credited with empowering women for several reasons; supposedly they cater to the poorest of the power, ensure social mobility and empowerment for women and their families, and help small businesses of hardworking self-sufficient people to succeed. However, if we look closer, there are several reasons to criticize it. For one, most microcredit companies have criteria for customers and do not serve the jobless "poorest of the poor" who would spend money on food, not small businesses that generate revenue. Often, customers are still able to pay for food. Secondly, it has been observed that sometimes women would prefer office jobs and very few actually start small businesses due to the work required. Thirdly, the image of a woman oppressed by patriarchy using microfinance is not always true – while some women who take out loans for families have their money wasted by husbands, this is not to say that all women taking out loans are disempowered or abused, awaiting rescue ("Subverting the Microfinance Myth").

Ultimately, microfinancing simply shifts the blame of corporations and international agencies like the WTO and NAFTA to poor women, promoting self-reliance but not solving systemic problems. While NGOs like Global Partnerships claim to help women with microfinancing, not only is microcredit a short-term system that does not address post-globalization problems or help the majority of destitute women, but their main intention is only to make revenue out of the business. Smart economics is only a WID version of utilitarian capitalism which makes women's development substitute for the state and global market's mistakes and turns them into objects which corporations can invest in without attempting to change the forms of patriarchy that originally placed them in poverty ("Fixing women").

In the end, smart economics does not address racial, gendered, or other structural forms of inequality that leave women disadvantaged. It assumes that investing in a white woman with the capacity to start a small business will have the same effect on a woman of color who may not be taken seriously, may experience harassment for competing with others, and may have to worry for her family's and her own safety. The model does not address how trans women or disabled women (who either do not have access to public services or cannot work jobs with extremely long hours and intense physical stress) will be provided for. It does not address how marginalized women, while attempting to obtain microloans, are supposed to deal with their own childcare responsibilities, street harassment, racial prejudice, or dependence on husbands and other male figures who can bail on them at any time. In other words, microfinancing is not a good enough solution because it does not address women's problems intersectionally – therefore, it will never help as many people as it claims to, and will mostly lead to poor women being caught in a debt cycle of obtaining new loans to pay for their current loans, while the poorest of the poor remain stuck in the same place without any chance of social mobility

Therefore, this is not enough. NGOs need to focus on local problems and gender relations, such as by determining why girls become pregnant and drop out of school, increasing female representation in positions of power, addressing mechanisms that prevent women of color from rising up, encouraging communities to save together instead of relying on banks to lend money, teaching people about white privilege and that white people to acknowledge that some will have to make space for people of color and give up their positions. Finally, governments, the global market, and other social institutions should be forced to acknowledge and make up for economic failure instead of making women responsible. Instead of more neoliberalization, more effort should be put towards providing for marginalized populations' safety and helping even the poorest of the poor ("Breaking the Cycle of Poverty").

Whereas Women in Development might consider anti-globalization counterproductive, in reality it could actually be a good response to the global economic crisis. For one, movements like food sovereignty, pluriverses, and focus on non-market services that focus on sustainability and helping localities become self-sufficient all ensure that small communities will be able to rely on one another. Instead of microfinancing which traps women in a debt cycle, forces them to take responsibility for the economic crisis, doesn't improve the situations of marginalized populations or the poorest of the poor, these movements focus on long-term improvements and attempting to address issues on a smaller (and sometimes, intersectional) scale.

For example, food sovereignty is a movement that appears in gender rights, collective democracy, environmentalism, and agriculture. It is a movement that has existed all over the world, specifically acting in opposition to the neoliberal Mexican government when it aimed to deregulate commodity markets (especially corn, a peasant food that small farmers like campesinas would have relied on to generate income) so large corporations can produce it instead of small farmers. Similarly, the movement resurfaced when the World Trade Organization dumped American and European subsidized grains from corporations who controlled most of grain industry into poorer countries, competing with severely disadvantaged small farmers. Ultimately, food sovereignty focuses just on the environment but also intersectionality. It focuses on biodiversity and small farms instead of having one conglomerate that treats food as a commodity and serves its own interests. It also acknowledges women's role in agriculture and fishing, and how they deserve equal opportunities to natural resources. It also takes into consideration people's ethnicities and financial situations by prioritizing indigenous people's land rights in order to benefit all and provide social justice through equality. Ultimately, land becomes a livelihood instead of a marketable good ("Food Sovereignty") .

On the other hand, pluriverses and non-market services are also highly integral in rethinking development, gender identities, expressions and gender inequalities. This idea of a world in which other worlds exist – such as Bamtaare from West Africa ("Harmonious Development") and Umak Kwasay in Bolivia and Ecuador ("living well") – rethink development by acknowledging that some problems will only be regional (such as patriarchy) and no solution is universal. Instead of focusing on Women in Development, which focuses on using technology to increase output and sometimes results in more work for women (i.e. for example, how cotton gin increased cotton production but increased slave work), it is more important to focus on creating a community that can support women and work around their identities as minorities or heads of households. Empowerment is not something that is only achievable with the invention of a new gadget; it is something that should always have been possible, but was impeded by sociocultural factors. By creating communities where women are respected and represented and changing structural inequality such as white privilege, women truly have equal opportunity and be able to support and sustain themselves in the long term. Additionally, non-market services such as intergenerational and mental care, economic security, environmental diversity and sustainability, all closely affect women's lives as women are often tasked with taking care of children and elderly, sometimes forced into motherhood at the cost of their sanity, expected to provide for family and keep jobs even with abusive landowners and employers, affected by racial prejudice in the workplace and daily life, and integral to agriculture and fishing (both fields linked to environmental studies). Ultimately, not only do these services avoid discursive colonization by accepting that there is no universal solution, but they also look at regional patriarchy and prioritizes indigenous people, and give women resources to empower themselves. In the end, the women are not "saved" and they are also not commodities ("Food Sovereignty.")


Chant, Sylvia, and Carol Sweetman. "Fixing women or fixing the world? 'Smart economics', efficiency approaches, and gender equality in development." Gender and Development, 2012, pp. 517–529.

Giovarelli, Renee, and Beatrice Wambalwa. "Land Tenure, Property Rights and Gender." USAID, 16 Aug. 2013.

Jackson, Cecile. "Gender Analysis of Land: Beyond Land Rights for Women." Journal of Agricultural Change, 2003, pp. 453–480.

McMichael, Phillip. "Food Sovereignty." Development and Social Change: A Global Perspective, 2017, pp. 204–209.

Radhakrishnan, Smitha. "Subverting the Microfinance Myth: Gendered Livelihoods in Urban India's Slums." Oppositional Conversations, 2014.

Wilson, Margaret. "Breaking the Cycle of Poverty." 2007.