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What happens when poor women suddenly acquire land, status, and power?

What happens when poor women suddenly go from being property to owning property? There's a change in status and power. You may wish to check out new research on what happens when women gain access to land and power, especially in places where women never owned land or had power before. The study, "Women's Land Ownership and Relationship Power: A Mixed Methods Approach to Understanding Structural Inequities and Violence Against Women" appears online since May 6, 2014 in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly. The new research shows how women discover what happens when there's even a small rise in status and power, for example ownership of some land which opens the door to the possibility and reality of organizing a farm or other enterprise related to owning property. Domestic violence falls as women gain rights from land ownership. Changes happen when women gain access to their own land.

What happens when poor women suddenly gain land ownership and organize their farms for income, status, and power?
Photos by Shelly Grabe, UCSC. Shelly Grabe, UCSC assistant professor of psychology.
What happens when poor women suddenly acquire land, status, and power?
Anne Hart, photography and novel.

The litmus of any society is how it treats its women, it's landless and powerless, and its animals, plants, and environment. When women organize to develop their own land, suddenly they find that they have higher status and power. This leads to the choice to make their own decisions. The result is a discovery that ownership leads to power that then can result in more power in relationships. But sometimes the result is violence against women. And other times, domestic violence decreases when women own their own property.

How many times have women around the world listened to someone else say, "because I pay the rent/mortgage or other expenses" that such an environment means powerlessness, violence or the threat of it, emotional or financial abuse, and inequality in human rights? It's as if someone said because you're a woman, you're not at the top of the food chain as in " sorry, honey, but it looks like it has to be you," as some people figuratively say before dispatching an animal to be used to feed a group of people.

The reality could be that someone else close to you is at the top, and has power over your destiny and choices. For example, in some societies a women moves from being her father's property to being her husband's property. Throughout history, in some parts of the world, women were gathered in groups to be used as baby-making factories to produce heirs, often for one person in power. So what happens when women are given land ownership, and begin to organize their farms or other businesses?

The result is that they gain power as their farms become productive and no one is taking away what they earn from organizing their own enterprises. Now, the goal (in some societies) is to prevent someone in power from threatening the woman who's a property owner to then pay protection money to a male or group or suffer violence and/or destruction of her property.

When women gain access to their own land

The change was clear and it was dramatic: "I went from being property to owning property," a woman in a remote area of Nicaragua told UC Santa Cruz assistant professor of psychology Shelly Grabe, according to the May 14, 2014 news release, "Land and power: Women discover one can lead to the other," by Guy Lasnier. Grabe wanted to know how the power dynamic between men and women might change when women owned land. More importantly, she wanted to know how the propensity for gender-based violence against women might change.

Writing in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly, Grabe suggests that when women in developing countries own land, they gain power within their relationships and are less likely to experience violence. Grabe and co-authors Rose Grace Grose and Anjali Dutt, both UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) psychology graduate students, analyzed data Grabe collected from 492 women in Nicaragua and Tanzania in 2007 and 2009 respectively.

"Women in both countries connected owning property to increased power and status within their communities and to having greater control within their relationships," the authors write, according to the news release. Violence against women is not a matter of isolated cases but rather the result of systems of power, and it can change when the power relationship changes, Grabe found.

Not just 'bad apples'

"When we think about violence against women we often focus on isolated cases," Grabe said, according to the news release. "If we keep assuming the problem is a matter of a 'few bad apples' or 'fundamentalists' that we need to bring to justice we will never eradicate the problem. The findings suggest that if we shift the structures (thereby shifting views of women) it will also shift domestic relations which dramatically improve women's risk," she said, according to the news release.

Physical and psychological violence against women is a result of structural, gender-based inequalities such as the lack of access to resources, equal pay, and representation in politics, she said. "These inequalities grant men disproportionate power over women and as a result we see male control and dominance being exerted over women's bodies in the form of violence."

Impact of globalization

Other researchers have found that globalization is making the problem worse. In many regions of the developing world—what has been called the "Global South"—land is held in traditional ways, often communally or by male-dominated families. The term Global South is used, not as a geographical reference, but instead to reflect the socioeconomic and political divide between wealthy countries, known collectively as the North, and poorer countries often exploited in processes of globalization. Financial models in the "North" such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank frequently require private land ownership as a prerequisite for economic aid.

"One of the consequences of the shift to privatized systems," researchers say, "is an erosion of the few rights to land that women previously held under customary or cooperative systems." Grabe worked with grassroots organizations in both Nicaragua and Tanzania for her study. Though the situations were different, she found women in newly privatized areas are using land as a proxy of power. "Property grants them rights" and the women are very strategic about it, she said, according to the news release. "They knew that if they had land they'd change the power dynamic. They were very clear about the social inequity."

Who has the rights?

Previously, women would in effect grant rights to men. "Women would say, 'he has the rights, he owns the land, he owns the cattle,'" Grabe explained, according to the news release. Those rights included a right to exert violence. Once a woman becomes a property owner she gains rights.

Grabe found that grassroots women's organizations are making a concerted effort to tackle the problem of violence against women by going to the root of the problem–structural inequality instead of intervening in individual cases with women who are targeted. "In order to address rates of violence against women we need to address the structure of inequities," she said, according to the news release.

Grabe joined UCSC in 2008. She is also affiliated with the departments of feminist studies and Latin American and Latino studies. For spring quarter, she's teaching a senior seminar in psychology and social activism. You also may wish to check out, "Women's Land Ownership and Relationship Power."

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