Notes From The Field
Land Rights Are Women's Rights
By Leena Z. Khan
15 August 2012
My summer internship in Cambodia with MJP has been an enriching and unexpected journey, providing me with greater insights into the challenges and opportunities of the practice of international development. As a student in the Masters in Public Administration (MPA) Development Practice program at Columbia University, my project has focused largely on women's social and legal empowerment through educating rural communities on their land rights. This project has been the perfect fit me, allowing me to integrate my development practice studies with my law background, passion for social justice and the advancement of international women's rights.
Impact of Khmer Rouge on Land Ownership in Cambodia
Cambodia's turbulent history has had a direct impact on land rights. Under the Khmer Rouge period from 1975 to 1979, private land ownership rights were abolished and most land tenure and cadastral records were destroyed. While people had a right to work the land, all land belonged to the State. Approximately 2 million Cambodians died from starvation, execution, work exhaustion, or from diseases due to lack medicine and medical services. Moreover, millions of land mines laid by the Khmer Rouge have resulted in countless deaths and disabilities since the 1980s.
A large majority of families are still recovering from the mental and physical scars of Cambodia's civil war. Samlout was one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge regime and served as a battle zone between KR soldiers and government troops until as recently as 1998. The effects of civil war are palpable even today. Nearly every household I have visited in Samlout had at least one male family member with a prosthetic leg âกฐ a sobering reminder of the ongoing post-conflict dangers posed by landmines. From my conversations and interviews with rural families, I have sensed the effects of war, including loss, displacement and trauma continue to have a deep impact on men and women alike.
Need for Land Reform
After three decades of civil war, Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in the region. An estimated 30% of the population lives below the poverty line, with over 80% living in rural areas. Land is one of the most important resources in Cambodia with the agriculture sector employing 60% of total labor force and contributing to 33% of GNP.
Policy makers are gradually recognizing the importance of issuing private ownership titles for reducing poverty and averting growing levels of conflict stemming from land insecurity. And over the past few years, the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) has introduced a series of land reforms, including the passage of the 2001 Land Law, which should help women. Or?
Implications of Land Registration for Rural Women
Today, Cambodia is moving towards a formalized land registration system. My fieldwork in Samlout has involved a series of interviews which have enabled me to reflect upon the various sectors which contribute to the marginalization of rural women. Prior to MJPâ™s arrival, Samlout was largely excluded from development programs. Poor infrastructure, impassable roads during monsoon season, inadequate use of agricultural inputs, insufficient health services and low literacy levels among women and girls have impeded gender equality and womenâ™s socio-economic advancement.
To address the communityâ™s needs, in 2006 MJP began implementing key development interventions in 10 villages, focusing on health care, education, agricultural inputs/food security/ nutrition and sanitation and hygiene. MJP has since built new health care facilities, designed and implemented health and education projects, and has been changing the way farmers apply agricultural inputs.
During the process of meeting and interviewing stakeholders, including NGOs, local authority figures and members of the community, I began to see the gender disparities between men and women on their respective understanding of land laws and registration procedures. Compared to their male counterparts, rural women are more likely to be landless, own smaller plots of land and possess less knowledge about land registration procedures. I also realized that registration of inherited, gifted and jointly held land between husband and wife are often a part of a greater web of issues involving both traditional and customary practices. While women are legally entitled to property rights to land acquired both prior and during to marriage, they are often unaware of their rights and struggle to assert them.
One Common Story
A particular womanâ™s story from Samlout left an impression upon me and seems to embody the challenges faced by large number of the rural poor. After separating from her husband, she has been left practically penniless. She had no marriage certificate, no land title demonstrating her jointly acquired property and no documentation to prove her rights to property she inherited prior to marriage. Now separated and landless, the absence of any legal documents proving jointly acquired marriage property has exposed her vulnerability, leaving her dependent upon family members for all her basic survival needs.
Her case, unfortunately, is not unusual and underscores the importance of married women to jointly register property with their spouses âกฐ a security which can help provide women with greater protection in the event of divorce, separation or abandonment.
Gender Equality in Cambodia?
International agreements have repeatedly called for the importance of womenâ™s land and property rights. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is an international human rights treaty that focuses on womenâ™s rights worldwide. CEDAW has underscored rural land rights for women, referring to equal treatment of women in land and agrarian reform processes. Despite Cambodiaâ™s ratification of CEDAW in 1992, the vast majority of people have not heard of the international treaty and have no understanding of the weight it carries for the countryâ™s international obligations in promoting gender equality.
The Beijing Platform of Action has also supported that womenâ™s rights to inheritance and land ownership be formally recognized. Finally, womenâ™s rights to land and property are implicit in the UN Millennium Development Goals, specifically Goal 1 on eradicating extreme poverty and Goal 3 on gender equality.
Connecting Justice to Women in Samlout
I believe the Government of Cambodia is making important socio-economic strides towards the advancement of womenâ™s rights. Significantly, the RGC has made a commitment to advancing womenâ™s human rights and removing discrimination through its ratification of CEDAW.Â However, most people currently benefitting from Cambodiaâ™s land registration process are the urban and educated residents of Phnom Penh who can read, write and indulge in the cityâ™s new shopping malls and western coffee houses.Â Cambodia is still predominantly rural, and the privileged lives of cosmopolitan Phnom Penh residents are not representative of the majority of the country.
For example, geographically isolated rural populations in Samlout simply do not have the same access to legal information and to justice as those living in urban areas. MJP identified critical gaps in womenâ™s understanding of land laws which present direct challenges for women in securing their rights. MJPâ™s series of legal empowerment workshops have been designed specifically to meet the needs of vulnerable rural women. MJP addressed these gaps in Promoting Womenâ™s Land Rights in Samlout âกฐ a workshop held in Samlout on August 9, 2012.
The workshop attendees were members of the commune council (commune councils have similar functions to city halls in North America) and Womenâ™s Advisory Committee (WAC). In 2010, MJP created WAC, a civil society advisory group in Samlout in order to promote womenâ™s socio-economic empowerment through promoting greater access to vocational training and business opportunities. Meeting on a quarterly basis, WAC also attempts to alter socially entrenched views that hinder womenâ™s opportunities in education and employment.
MJPâ™s Gender Equity Coordinator and I explained the land registration process and benefits of land titles for rural communities. These benefits include preventing future conflicts, identifying the true owner of land parcel, assuring that land is protected by the law and protecting a familyâ™s access to local natural resources, such as trees, pasture, and water. Importantly, we explained that land titles provide women with greater control over agricultural income, higher shares of business and labor market earnings, and easier access to credit. Land ownership also strengthens womenâ™s organizational skills, social networks, social capital and self-confidence.
Designing and delivering a practical, participatory land rights workshop for Samlout residents was not an easy task. However connecting with the community over the course of the summer was vital to understanding the cultural traditions, practices and education level of the people, helping us design a rural-appropriate workshop for this community.
Womenâ™s land rights intersect with other problems including discriminatory inheritance patterns, agriculture and development, access to health services and gender-based violence. Without the security of a home or land, rural women in Cambodia and their families will remain trapped in poverty, struggling for livelihoods, nutrition, education, health care, sanitation and other basic human rights.
This interdependence of womenâ™s human rights highlights the importance of women having equal access to adequate land, housing and standard of living, which is not only guaranteed under the law, but also practiced at the grassroots level. However with land-grabbing and illegal land concessions on the rise, I question whether rural women are actually positioned to benefit from the governmentâ™s land registration process. Given the rising number of incidents suppressing dissent on land-related matters, at the present time, I am only cautiously optimistic about the benefits of registration for the majority of Cambodians.
As a former immigration lawyer who has represented clients seeking political asylum, applying my legal skills to make a positive difference in someoneâ™s life has been personally gratifying. My work with the Samlout community has been an equally rewarding experience.Â On a personal level, I am grateful for the opportunity to help rural Cambodians in understanding and navigating the countryâ™s complicated land registration system. I have been privileged to meet dozens of rural families who graciously welcomed me into their homes and entrusted me with their very private life experiences. Their stories of survival and resilience are a source of inspiration in my practice of international development and have strengthened my commitment to advocate for the advancement of womenâ™s rights.
About the Author:
Leena Z. Khan is a Master of Public Administration in Development Practice (MPA) Candidate at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University. As an intern with the Gender Equity Department at MJP, she has been studying the intersection of gender, law and land rights.