Forest as commons and women’s land rights: Reflections from India

In the last five years, land rights have increasingly taken centre stage in strategies and debates on women’s empowerment and economic independence.

Rural women across Africa have mobilised for change, national campaigns have called out discriminatory inheritance laws and in Nepal women and other marginalised groups, have worked to ensure equal access to rights and entitlements to land and housing in the post-earthquake recovery.

Worldwide, 2.5 billion people rely on Indigenous and community lands – yet so far, much of the energy on women’s land, forest and water rights has focused on individual title to household or agricultural land. This raises the question: How can we safeguard women’s land, water and forest rights across all tenure systems?

Addressing this will help to increase attention on some of the world’s most marginalised women and girls. It will also build the resilience of the women’s land rights agenda – by challenging misconceptions, or outright criticisms, that women’s rights demand the privatisation of common lands or the eradication of local (customary) governance.

Collective rights for women

In India, Oxfam has found that collective rights under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 are an important tool for women. Collective decision-making can create a more level playing field, and does not immediately threaten household harmony by pitting men against women.

India’s forests provide food, firewood and livelihoods for over 200 million people and women from tribal (Adivasi) communities are often at the forefront of grassroots struggles for community control and decision-making over forests.

Women’s responsibilities for feeding their family and caring for vulnerable members give them intimate knowledge of local eco-systems and the impacts of their loss. For example, in the state of Odisha, forest loss in just 5 years almost doubled the distance people (typically women or girls) had to travel to collect a shoulder load of firewood – from 4km in 1995 to 7.3km in 2000.

However, women’s expertise in forest management is largely ignored and this gender bias at community level is echoed in male-dominated organisations and agencies.

Correcting historical injustice

The Forest Rights Act, 2006 - marked a historic step for forest-dwelling communities, including women. The Act attempts to correct historical injustices, offering livelihood security for forest communities, recognising their rights to use and access the forest.

The legislation outlines women’s rights to the commons as well as individual rights, such as joint titles held with their husbands. While individual forest rights are limited to 4 hectares, rights to the commons can cover 200 -300 hectares or more. It is this large-scale transfer of governance rights that is most strongly resisted.

More than 10 years after the Forest Rights Act took effect, many organisations are working on its implementation on the ground - yet few focus on women. Similarly, the women’s land rights movement has yet to grasp the legislation’s revolutionary potential.

 Oxfam India

Women in Chhattisgarh collect food from their village forest. Photo: Oxfam India

Addressing the gender imbalance

To date, women’s movements have actively advocated for recognition of women as farmers and successfully expanded women’s property rights through The Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005. While 75% of rural women workers are engaged in agriculture, 87% of rural land is controlled by men and less than 13% by women.

This is an important imbalance to address, but progress in amending The Hindu Succession Act is limited to Hindu women, and the states of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya, Punjab and Haryana each use a loophole to deny women equal rights to agricultural land. In contrast, legal space under the Forest Rights Act offers rights to women from some of the most vulnerable and economically marginalised communities in the country.

Linking forest rights with gender justice campaigns could help further women’s leadership and confront gender-based violence and the power inequalities that contribute to it. Given the vital role women play in protecting forests, this would also promise better outcomes for not only women but also men.

Living under threat

For decades, neoliberal policies in India and across the world have seen common natural resources – forests, waters and lands – shrinking. Communities are losing access, as rights are transferred to large companies or used for infrastructure projects. Today, tens of thousands of marginalised people who live a simple, but rich, life in India’s forests face the threat of eviction, with dire consequences.

Experiences from the ground in India points to the fact that, men are more likely to seek monetary compensation. However, women’s intimate connection with the forest give them a deeper understanding of how its destruction will impact on community livelihoods, culture, and knowledge, and they face the brunt of the violence in defending it.

While women with individual property rights are left to negotiate alone with their husbands, collective rights offer women the potential to stand together and speak with one voice.

Fighting for land rights

The experience of India is not unique.

Across the world, marginalised women are harnessing the power of collective rights to strengthen, safeguard and enrich their lives and the land, forests and waters they protect.

It is vital that Oxfam’s global women’s land rights movement learn their stories and call for women land rights across all tenure systems.

This entry posted on 13 February 2019, by Sreetama Bhaya, Oxfam India Program Coordinator - Natural Resource Management; and Shona Hawkes, Oxfam Land Rights Policy Lead.

Photo: Women’s group from an Odisha village protecting their forest. Credit: Oxfam India

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