There are 2.5 billion people worldwide who rely directly on collective land tenure systems for their livelihoods, social relations and cultural identities. Collective land tenure systems are communities or groups of people who share the rights to use and manage land. In addition to group rights, in some collective tenure systems each member of the community holds specific rights to distinct resources and land. Most indigenous and customary communities hold land under collective tenure.

Women make up more than half of this population, and they play vital roles in their communities. They are the traditional subsistence producers and are primarily responsible for collecting natural resources — such as water, fuelwood, fodder, and wild plants and herbs — for household use or supplemental income. 

Yet not all indigenous and customary communities recognize women’s land rights in the collective, thus missing out on key economic, social and environmental benefits. 

Women’s Land Tenure Presents Economic, Social and Environmental Benefits

In some communities, women may only have access to communal land derived from their husbands or male relatives, land that is often tied to their marital status. This makes a woman’s tenure insecure, meaning that she could lose her rights to the land if her husband dies or they get divorced, an event that could drive her and her children into poverty. 

Women also comprise a significant portion of the agricultural labor force, but are a minority of agricultural landholders. Even when they do have rights to land, their plots are often smaller and of lesser quality than those belonging to men. 

To explore the potential of women’s tenure rights in collectively held lands, WRI studied five communities in five countries where women have strong and secure land tenure: two community forest groups in Cameroon and Nepal; two indigenous communities in Indonesia and Mexico; and a pastoral community in Jordan. 

The study found that when women’s land tenure rights are legally and socially recognized and secure, women and their communities reap important economic, social and environmental benefits.

Women from the Gajah Bertalut Village in Riau Province, Indonesia meet in the community hall.
Women from the Gajah Bertalut Village in Riau Province, Indonesia meet in the community hall. The village’s matriarchal cultural structure gives women land rights, which provide short- and long-term economic benefits. Photo by WRI Indonesia

Why Are Women’s Collective Land Rights Important?

1. Women’s collective land rights provide economic security for households and communities

When women have access and rights to land, the economic benefits extend to their households and their communities. Research shows that, compared to men, women contribute a greater proportion of their agricultural and land-based income to their household than men, improving food security and children’s health and education as a result. 

This is illustrated by a matriarchal community in Indonesia’s Riau Province. The Gajah Bertalut community practices a matrilineal inheritance system and matrilocal residence. Women are the primary rights holders of the community’s ancestral lands, and the husband moves to his wife’s village upon marriage. This cultural structure gives women a central role in the management of household finances, who in turn bestow long-term economic benefits to their families. For example, local women reported that they direct a substantial portion of the income from the land to food and their children’s education.  

The women also provide supplemental family income during the off- or low-harvest seasons for rubber, the community’s main source of income. Rights to the communal forest allows women to freely use their diverse knowledge of non-timber forest products — including palms and grasses such as rattan, resins, wild fruits and medicinal plants — to create brooms, preserves and traditional remedies to sell at local markets.

Women from the village of Gajah Bertalut in Riau, Indonesia return from harvesting plants.
Women from the village of Gajah Bertalut in Riau, Indonesia return from harvesting plants and fruits from the community forest. Rights to the communal forest allows these women to create and sell products made from forest resources. Photo by WRI Indonesia

The short- and long-term economic benefits of women’s land tenure ripple through entire communities. 

In the Banpale Community Forest User Group in Gandhaki Pradesh, Nepal, a community prospered because women’s individual rights to the communal forest are mandated. Women’s access to the forest allowed them to form a small business enterprise that harvests, processes and sells hog plum fruit. Today, women and men run the community-wide enterprise together, and it is the main source of income for the entire community. Furthermore, a portion of profits fund community projects, such as school improvements, road construction and water pipe installation in homes. 

2. Secure land rights empower women socially

Hands planting Gnetum in a community forest in Cameroon.
Planting Gnetum in a community forest in Cameroon. Formal recognition of women’s rights in a community forest in Cameroon’s Littoral Province empowers women and fosters greater community collaboration. Photo by Ollivier Girard for CIFOR

Secure land tenure rights increase women’s bargaining power and allow them to partake in community-level decision-making. A voice within community governance allows for their knowledge and ideas to be included in decision-making, enhancing the quality of decisions and empowering women.

In Cameroon, the formal recognition of women’s rights in community forests and the requirement of their membership in the community forest association enabled women in the Boomabong and Pouth-Ndjock Community Forest to use the forest and participate in decision-making. Previously, women only had access rights to forests owned by their husband and were not involved in communal forest management; reclassifying the forest as a community forest allowed them to be rights-holders in the pooled landholding and engage in forest management. 

The inclusive community forest association also fostered greater community cooperation. Men and women work together to cultivate crops on communal forestlands, and an eight-member executive committee — of which five members are women — oversees harvest sales. Women make up 40% of the association of community forest members, who vote for how harvest income will be allocated to community projects and how remaining funds will be distributed amongst member households. As a result, women influence the types of community projects to prioritize, such as solar panel installation in homes and clean drinking water systems. 

Individual land tenure rights for women also provide an important social safety net to female-headed households, including single mothers and widows. Female-headed households are at extreme risk of poverty within rural communities, especially if land rights are customarily held by men. Community membership provides women in La Trinidad Ixtlán in Mexico’s Sierra Norte region with long-term rights to communal agricultural lands, allowing them to grow crops for their family even if their marital status changes.

Women from a Mexican community take a break while working in the forest.
Women from a Mexican community take a break while working in the community forest in 2019. When women have secure land rights, they have greater incentives to protect their land and invest in its sustainability. Photo by UZACHI

3. Women’s collective land rights produce environmental benefits and boost community resilience

When women and their communities have secure land rights, they have greater incentives to protect the land and invest in its sustainability. For example, land rights in Jordan and Nepal are helping women protect and reestablish local biodiversity. 

In Jordan, a donor-funded project is helping a pastoral community restore severely degraded rangelands by reviving the hima, a traditional system of land management that lets the land regenerate by keeping certain areas undisturbed for a period of time. Customarily, women in the Bani-Hashem community were excluded from rangeland management, but due to donor requirements, women received rights to rangeland and 40% of the administrative seats within the rangeland management committee. 

With these new rights, women — who are primarily responsible for grazing livestock — applied their firsthand knowledge of the pasture in management of the hima, helping restore land vegetation back to 1990 levels. After one year of restoration and protection, the community saw an increase in biomass, including the restoration of 36 indigenous species in the pasture. This new natural vegetation improved the grazing capacity of the pasture and enabled women to start an herbal tea business, introducing a new source of income for households and the community.

The success of the women-led business in Banpale Community Forest in Nepal inspired residents to plant more trees in the community forest and on household lands. More tree plantings and better collective forest management by both women and men improved forest cover and let the community forest rebound. 

The project also inspired women and other community members to actively participate in sustainable forestry and climate adaptation trainings, such as those on forest fire management, water conservation, landslide and soil erosion prevention, biodiversity mapping and human-wildlife conflict avoidance strategies. The business plans to further diversify the forest by reintroducing native species like cardamom and broom grass.

Women Are Agents of Change

Securing women’s land rights in collectively held lands lays the groundwork for meaningful socio-economic and environmental changes that benefit not only women themselves, but their families and communities. Women have proven themselves to be change agents, bringing about a vision of shared prosperity, peace and opportunity for all.