VOICES Voices Icon Ideas and Insight From Explorers


Women’s Land Rights Key to Enacting Gender-Responsive International Climate Change Action

By Jennifer Duncan, Sr. Attorney and Land Tenure Specialist at Landesa and Fiona Noonan, Stanford in Government Fellow at the Landesa Center for Women’s Land Rights

Nine months after adopting the Paris Agreement, as ratification continues and implementation begins, the world will see significant movement on climate change. However, if nations do not fill the gaps that international negotiations left, the Agreement’s shortcomings may have even more wide-reaching implications for global warming.

Among these key gaps are gender-responsiveness and attention to land rights. Better securing women’s land rights is a critical and largely ignored step toward climate change action and broader sustainable development.

From the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21), 2015 saw a marked rise in international recognition of cross-cutting social, environmental, and economic concerns. The 17 SDGs in the 2030 Agenda, for example, include three goals that call out land rights and three sub-goals that explicitly tackle women’s land and property rights, plus others with significant land-related implications.

These two topics represent a dynamic nexus of successful sustainable development, and mounting evidence underlines the social, environmental, and economic importance of ensuring women’s land rights in particular.

Yet, when COP21 adjourned in Paris, the 187 Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) had failed to meaningfully address land, much less women’s land rights, in the consensus-based Paris Agreement, creating an international policy disconnect between climate change action and women’s land rights recognized in the SDGs.

Furthermore, individual nations do not consistently address gender, land, or women’s land rights in their approaches to reducing emissions. Prior to the negotiations, each country was required to submit an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) outlining a course of action for combatting climate change domestically. The UN offered no guidelines or requirements for the INDCs, and of the 161 submitted only 49 included gender at all, and even fewer countries explicitly addressed land rights.

The Landesa Center for Women’s Land Rights conducted a review of INDCs from 18 nations, representing a broad global cross-section that includes China, India, Nigeria, Indonesia, Brazil, and South Africa, and accounting for roughly 3.8 billion of the world’s 7.3 billion people. Of these nations’ INDCs, one-third devoted no attention to gender or women, while only three broached the subjects of land rights, land reform, or land tenure.

Not a single of these INDCs discussed women’s land rights.

In the context of broader climate change policy, this inattention to women’s land rights has far-reaching implications: climate change already disproportionately impacts women—particularly in poorer nations—and without secure land rights women may descend further into poverty, malnutrition, and dependence on male relatives. In these countries, climate change—and in some cases the programs intended to combat climate change—may further weaken women’s access to land as their home, livelihood, and shelter.

Every nation’s INDC honed in on the issue of climate-induced vulnerability, but none connected broad concerns for human safety to practicable, cross-cutting solutions like securing women’s land rights. It is unclear whether this reflects a lack of appreciation of the role socio-environmental solutions can (and indeed must) play to address climate change challenges, a lack of capacity, or rather a lack of political will to tackle complex socio-economic and environmental issues, no matter how closely linked these are to climate change challenges and solutions.

Securing women’s rights to land is one approach that can offer a range of benefits tied to both climate change and socio-economic development. This approach can be particularly effective in developing countries, whose rural populations tend to depend on land, forests, and agriculture for their livelihoods, where women make up the majority of agricultural labor, and where women’s land rights are the most insecure. Since the agriculture, forestry, and other land use (AFOLU) sector produces roughly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, the confluence of land, women and sustainable development—and how nations manage that confluence—has critical implications for climate change.

Research suggests that secure land tenure leads to a greater sense of ownership over land, better prevention of soil erosion, and increased likelihood of afforestation (tree planting) which is an important method of creating emissions-mitigating carbon sinks, and which can also provide immediate benefits to rural women who depend on ecosystem health to continue successfully farming, gathering firewood, and accessing potable water.

Taking a gender-responsive, land rights-based approach to climate change action—particularly with respect to AFOLU— can help a nation to fulfill its commitments to the UNFCCC, while at the same time fulfilling its commitments to the women and other vulnerable populations that so many INDCs specifically pledge to protect.

In the absence of political leadership from within the UNFCCC, cross-movement initiatives—both by individual nations and by well-positioned NGOs—can and should harness land rights as a vehicle for strengthening connections between women’s rights and general climate change solutions.

Parties can incrementally incorporate gender-responsiveness land reforms as they fulfill their obligations under Paris Agreement in a variety of ways. Meaningful actions can include adopting laws that protect women’s land rights, focusing on implementing these laws at the community and household levels, and collecting sex-disaggregated data on both documented and perceived secure tenure rights to land, to deed titling, to collecting gender-disaggregated data, With the support of global CSOs, NGOs, local governments, and the UN, such steps could help to ensure that the next COP decision, and related nation-level action plans, meaningfully integrate both land and gender en route to accomplishing the goals of the 2030 Agenda.

Leaders from government, the public sector, NGOs, business, UN agencies and indigenous and grassroots organizations are currently gathering in Honolulu, Hawaii, for the 2016 International Union for Conversation of Nature (IUCN) World Congress. The theme is “Planet at the Crossroads.” This is the first World Congress following on after the Paris Agreement, providing leaders with the opportunity to squarely discuss issues of conservation, and substantive rights including land rights, and gender. Sessions incorporate a vast and far-reaching range of important topics and approaches to address climate change. However no session addresses land rights, gender and climate change, and there is a risk that securing women’s rights to land will not be considered in the discussion. Losing this opportunity would be a setback to the creation of climate change solutions that (1) do no harm to existing rights and assets for women, and (2) tackle both the causes and symptoms of climate change in promising new ways. We urge nations in Hawaii to bring women’s land rights into discussion this week, and onto the agenda of future climate change events.


  1. Hemand
    September 9, 1:20 pm

    Very informative one. I also look forward for the IUCN event because women’s land right is the need of time!

  2. Jasmine Wavlovitch
    Cambridge, MA USA
    September 8, 11:12 am

    Very important topic. Jennifer, have your read “Do No Harm in Land Tenure and Property Rights: Designing and Implementing Conflict Sensitive Land Programs”? It is intended to assist in the process of designing and implementing conflict sensitive land tenure and property rights interventions. My organization, CDA, would be very interested to hear expert feedback on the tool.