Credit: Julien Harneis.
Gender-based violence (GBV) is a profound problem in many countries of sub-Saharan Africa: in Rwanda, 35 percent of women have reported experiencing physical, sexual, or emotional violence from a spouse or partner; in Liberia, 49 percent of women experienced violence from an intimate partner. Yet, GBV is a global problem affecting women from all countries, races, ethnicities, and religions.
GBV is any act of violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women. It is often rooted in unequal power relations between men and women, and is therefore connected to social and economic inequality.
A growing body of evidence shows a correlation between GBV and land rights, though whether this correlation is positive or negative depends on context and culture. The majority of current research on the topic comes from India, and suggests a positive correlation. Secure land rights can increase a woman’s economic independence and bargaining power, thereby reducing her vulnerability to GBV. Further, secure land rights can empower women, and may give them more freedom to leave abusive relationships.
However, a few studies suggest a negative correlation between stronger land rights and GBV. These studies have found that in areas where traditional norms dominate, gains in women’s property ownership and employment status seemed to increase the risk of domestic violence. In some cases, a woman’s increased economic power might lead to violence from men seeking to reassert their dominance and power in the home.
The complexity outlined above is reflected in experiences in Rwanda and Liberia. In Rwanda, control over land and land disputes affecting women are correlated with intra-family GBV. Women who bring land disputes to local authorities are exposed to physical and emotional violence, often from their husband and his family. In Liberia, GBV in urban and per-urban areas is common and tolerated by local communities. There, women most commonly experienced GBV in relation to how household economic assets (including cash, housing, and moveable property) are divided.
The relationship between land and gender-based violence is complex and dependent on cultural contexts. Much more research is needed to better understand and address the challenge of GBV, particularly related to interventions focused on increasing women’s land tenure security.