Tuesday, February 7, 2017 12:13 pm | By Elizabeth McKee
Kosovo recently announced a major reform in the country’s property rights protections, pledging to support a woman’s right to inherit and own property by clearly defining formal ownership. Although women are not legally excluded from land ownership, the predominance of informal land transfers and lack of a formal inheritance process in Kosovo allow women to be unfairly excluded from property ownership.
The US Ambassador to Kosovo, Greg Delawie, remarked in a speech, “only 19 percent of women in Kosovo own land – and less than 4 percent of women inherit property. Only 2 percent have a bank loan secured by property. And Kosovo’s economy is suffering because of it.”
A woman’s right to own property is under-protected in various countries all over the world. Women, Business, and the Law, a 2016 study conducted by the World Bank, finds that in 35 economies, widows do not have access to the same inheritance rights as widowers. In Bangladesh, for example, inheritance allotments depend on gender and number of children. In the study Women, land and power in Bangladesh, researcher Jenneke Arens finds, "[Women] know that they are entitled to half of what their brothers inherit of their parents’ property. They also know that widows are entitled to one-eight’ of their husband’s property if they have children from their husband, or one-fourth if they have no children."
Even in places like Kosovo where women are legally able to inherit land, they can face structural and cultural impediments, including inefficient land transfer systems and familial pressures to give up their property. In Rajasthan, one of India’s poorest states, girls are often either coerced to give up their inheritances or systematically excluded from their parents’ wills. Reuters reports, “once she is married, a woman is seen as belonging to her husband's family with no claim on ancestral property.”
In some areas, family and traditional values can pose a direct threat to women who try to claim their inheritance rights. Prof. Raz Ullah, President of the Alternate Solutions Institute Pakistan, conducted dozens of interviews with Pakistani women who had interacted with Pakistan's property rights system. "One respondent," wrote Ullah, "shared the story of a girl who was forced on her wedding night to transfer her land inheritance to her brother. When she refused, her mother and brother strangled her to death for fear that the land might be transferred to another family."
Unfortunately, women who are denied their inheritances often have no means of pursuing legal recourse. Inheritance battles within the court system are only possible if women hire lawyers and pay registration fees - all of which requires access to capital. However, many women are financially dependent on the same male family members who are denying their land rights. Ullah cites lack of independent access to finances as a major obstacle to women's inheritance rights, claiming, "Women need money to pursue individual property rights through the court system, but may not be able to pay their legal fees without male assistance."
The barriers that women face in inheriting and owning property make government action all the more critical. Studies show that the protection and promotion of a woman’s right to own property has far-reaching effects. Possessing land titles creates access to credit, connecting women with the capital necessary for them to set up businesses and have a greater say in household finances.
Protecting a woman’s right to own property just makes good economic sense; women who have access to the same productive resources as men can increase agricultural output in developing countries by 2.4 - 4%. Moreover, property ownership among women is associated with improvements health, female education, and financial independence. Women, Business, and the Law finds, “Access to assets has also been linked to gains in family welfare, such as children’s health . . . In Colombia women who own property are in a better bargaining position at home, and are more likely to be able to move freely, negotiate the right to work, and control their income.”
In a world of poverty, hunger, and unhealthy and undereducated children, it can seem like some problems are too complicated and too pervasive to possibly solve. But improving a woman’s ability to own and inherit property is the first step to closing the gender gap and establishing robust and diverse economies within the developing world. Many countries are taking steps to fix this process. In addition to Kosovo, the Punjab government in Pakistan mandated that the state "transfer property to female family members at the time of inheritance . . . to avoid women’s property usurpation by male family members. " These countries, in reevaluating their conception of formal land ownership and inheritance laws, can transform land acquisition into an accessible path to women's empowerment.