Are women with secure land rights less vulnerable to domestic violence?

Publication Date: 
July 28, 2011
The Word on Women
West Bengal, India. Photo: Salim Paul

The problem of domestic violence in the world can seem intractable. In a recent report, UN Women notes that in 17 out of 41 countries, “a quarter or more of people think that it is justifiable for a man to beat his wife.”[1]

Think about that. In almost half of the countries the report studied, more than 25% of people think that husbands have a right to hurt their wives, that they have a right to use physical violence as a punishment and a method of control.

This most visceral form of violence is not the only way women are abused by their closest family members. In the US, domestic violence is defined by the Office on Violence Against Women as “a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.”[2] Domestic violence can thus be sexual, economic, psychological, or emotional. It is domestic violence when a man tells his wife that she must have sex with him or he will kick her out of their home, and it is domestic violence when a man prevents his wife from keeping her wages.

The UN report reveals that in many countries these forms of violence are not just ignored; they are condoned. The report recommends creating a women-friendly justice system by employing more female police, providing legal aid and awareness for women, creating specialized courts, and implementing gender-sensitive law reforms.

However, because domestic violence is so deeply ingrained in many women’s and men’s lives and because it is not just a physical form of abuse but a psychological, economic, and emotional one, it is important to consider complementary interventions.

Women in domestic violence situations lack power in their homes and their communities. In India, for example, where about 40 percent of people think that wife-beating is justifiable, 63 percent of women have no say in everyday household decisions, including daily purchases and visits to family or relatives.[3] Because these women have been kept from having any sort of power in their everyday lives, when violence becomes physical they have no way to escape the abuse.

Secure rights to assets can give women more bargaining power in their homes and communities, and therefore can make them less vulnerable to violence. One solution to the problem of domestic violence, then, is to give women in countries where domestic violence is most condoned more secure land rights.

Secure land rights can make a difference. Where women have land, they are empowered economically and socially. In Kerala, India, researchers found that only 7% of women who owned immovable property were subject to physical domestic violence, as opposed to 49% of women who did not. Owning property made a bigger difference than employment or education in reducing domestic violence.[4] In a similar study in Northern India, researchers found that female ownership of property “increases a woman’s economic security, reduces her willingness to tolerate violence, and…works toward deterring spousal violence.”[5]

Land serves many functions in people’s lives. Owning land means more than having a place to live. Rural land is often a job, a home, and a form of social security. Owning a piece of it can give people many tangible benefits, such as use of the land for farming, collateral for credit, and increased incomes. It can also provide intangible benefits, such as social clout and feelings of empowerment.[6] Women with secure rights to land can experience the economic and psychological security to free themselves from violent situations.

For these benefits to materialize, however, women’s rights to land have to be socially legitimate. Her husband, her family, and, most importantly, her community need to recognize them. Furthermore, women must be given the legal and structural support they need to assert those rights, whether that means ensuring that the police will enforce a woman’s right to keep someone off her land, providing education to traditional justice leaders on how to help women keep increased income for their children, or helping women to access the tools and seeds they need to make their land productive.

Landesa Center for Women’s Land Rights

An initiative of Landesa, the  champions the untapped potential of women and girls to transform their communities.  With secure rights to land, women and girls can improve food security, education, health, and economic development for themselves and their families.

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[1] UN Women, 2011. Progress of the World’s Women: In Pursuit of Justice.

[2] USDOJ. What is Domestic Violence. Accessed at .

[3] UN Women, 2011. Progress of the World’s Women: In Pursuit of Justice.

[4] Panda, Pradeep and Bina Agarwal, 2005. Marital Violence, Human Development and Women’s Property Status in India, World Development 33:5.

[5] Bhattacharya, Manasi, et. Al, 2009. “Marital Violence and Women’s Employment and Property Status: Evidence from North Indian Villages. Germany: IZA.

[6] See, e.g. Agarwal, Bina, 2002. “Are We Not Peasants Too? Land Rights and Women’s Claims in India. SEEDS. New York: Population Council.