Global Development Institute Blog

By Ralitza Dimova

            Contrary to conventional wisdom, giving ownership rights on land to women may not be a welfare enhancing panacea in poor agricultural settings. When women have less access to complementary resources such as credit, labour or marketing channels than men, female ownership of land alone would not help them enter into productivity enhancing agricultural sectors and generate income in such sectors. If women control land, while men control all remaining resources – and asset ownership is insecure in an environment of market and institutional imperfections – the outcome for the household as a whole is likely to be negative.

These are the key findings of a new publication by Ralitza Dimova, Sumon Bhaumik and Ira Gang in the Journal of Development Studies.

We find that in matrilineal societies in Malawi, where user and control rights over land are in the hands of women:

  • Cultivation of high value crops increases household welfare.
  • The likelihood of high value crop cultivation by households increases with the extent of land owned by men.
  • Income generated from high value crop production decreases with the amount of land owned by women.

High value crops and entitlement failure

In the context of agriculture-based less-developed economies it has long been argued that movement out of subsistence farming into commercial (or high value crop) production is a promising way out of poverty, and that establishing secure property rights on land is an important ingredient in this transition. Prioritising the allocation of land to women has been seen as an important ingredient in policy agendas, aimed at enhancing household welfare though female economic empowerment.

Even as gender sensitive asset allocation policies are pursued, it is well understood that there is widespread entitlement failure, which makes it difficult to translate capabilities and asset ownership into higher earnings. A specific example of such entitlement failure is the inability of households to participate in the production of high value crops, which could increase their income and hence their welfare. This form of entitlement failure is especially acute among women, either due to the absence of customary or formal rights on land, or due to difficulties in enforcing such rights on land as a result of a complex set of economic, social or cultural factors.

Resource ownership in Malawi

We conducted a study of rural Malawi where high value crops, such as tobacco and groundnuts, have been considered to be welfare enhancing. The Malawian rural landscape is particularly interesting because it is characterised by patrilineal and matrilineal land tenure systems. Matrilineal kinship places ownership and control rights on land in the hands of women and provides women with a degree of economic security. However, this economic security can be challenged (for instance, by maternal uncles) and is not matched by complementary resources, such as access to capital and hired labour. We hypothesised in our study that uncertain property rights may reduce households’ willingness to invest in cash crops, while paucity of complementary resources is likely to be a barrier to generating income from high value agriculture in matrilineal societies.

Table 1: Ethnic groups in Malawi, based on Census data

Ethnic group Persons % Classification referred to by Berge et al (2003)
Chewa 4252204 32.6 Matrilineal
Lomwe 2288285 17.6 Matrilineal
Yao 1760843 13.5 Matrilineal
Ngoni 1492850 11.5 Matrilineal
Tumbuka 1152017 8.8 Patrilineal
Njanja 754410 5.8 Matrilineal
Sena 467958 3.6 Patrilineal
Tonga 270833 2.1 Patrilineal
Ngonde (Nkhonde) 129914 1.0 Patrilineal
Lambya 59452 0.5 Patrilineal
Senga 24366 0.2
Nyakyusa 18751 0.1 Patrilineal
Other 357615 2.7
Total 13029498

Source: Berge, E. et al (2003). Lineage and land reforms in Malawi. Norwegian Centre for Land Tenure Studies.

Female land ownership: is it a panacea?

Using rich representative data from Malawi, our paper explores the effect of land owned by men and women on the probability for the household to enter the higher value cash crop sector and the actual income generated in that sector. We make a distinction between:

  • social norm driven land tenure, proxied by whether the household belongs to a matrilineal or a patrilineal kinship group.
  • the actual amount of land operated by either men or women in each of these two communities.

The paper then explores the implications of cash crop adoption and cash crop income on household welfare. The results indicate that although cash crop production unquestionably enhances household welfare and reduces the probability of the household to be poor, female land ownership is not a panacea. Not only does de facto male ownership of land enhance the probability of the household to enter the cash crop sector, especially in the context of matrilineal societies, but also land ownership by women reduces the income generated from cash crop production. We explain this finding with the absence of complementary resources, such as access to capital and hired labour by women. In other words, while women’s ownership of assets (such as land) may be a necessary condition for both female empowerment and enhanced household welfare, on its own it cannot guarantee either of these objectives.

The policy implication is that female ownership of assets cannot be approached in a piecemeal manner. A wider and more holistic approach needs to be adopted. In particular, should asset ownership by women be pursued as a policy agenda, it needs to be complemented with a pursuit of better access of women to capital, hired labour and marketing channels. For the reform to be successful, it would also be important to assure that social norms are well aligned with enhanced female empowerment.