Access to Land as a Constitutional Right

By Reem Gaafar*

At the time of its writing, the U.S. Constitution did not define who was eligible to vote. Each state was given the authority to determine eligibility. In most states, access to the ballot box was reserved for white males who owned at least 50 acres of land or had taxable income. This is a great example of how property ownership functions as a gateway right. In this case, those without property rights did not have political rights.

Today, land rights remain a gateway right in much of the world.

Consider the plight of the landless poor in India. An estimated 20 million rural families—children, women, and men—across India are landless. First and foremost, their landlessness traps them in poverty. They lack the most important asset in a rural society – land. Without secure land rights, they don’t have the security, opportunity or incentive to make the sort of long-term investments in their land that can improve their harvests and their income. What’s more, their landlessness means that they often do not appear in any government records – making them ineligible for a wide variety government services. In fact, often they cannot even access the government services created specifically to help the poor.


Government programs such as free boarding school (available for poor high school students from tribal families), government work cards (that guarantee 100 days of paid work each year), agricultural extension services (that might boost their harvests and nutrition), and funds for the homeless to build a home – often require proof of residence.
As explained in an Institute for Human Rights in Business  paper by Elisabeth Wickeri and Anil Kalhan, “Access to land is important for development and poverty reduction, but also often necessary for access to numerous economic, social and cultural rights, and as a gateway for many civil and political rights.”

A wealth of research has made clear that secure land rights are critically important in both rural and urban settings, impacting access to economic, social, and cultural rights including: income, food, utilities, housing, credit, government services, and household – and community-level decision-making. The impact is particularly compelling for women, who see a variety of positive outcomes with secure land tenure including greater savings and income and reduction in the rate of domestic violence.
Given all of these linkages, it is clear that land rights have been an underutilized leverage point in the international development community.

But a new trend – large scale land acquisitions, popularly called “land grabs” – is shining a spotlight on the fundamental importance of secure rights to land and helping ensure the issue of land rights gets the attention it deserves as a global development tool.

As Widkeri and Kalhan point out in their paper, “Forced evictions, particularly those carried out through violence or coercion, tend to intensify violations of interrelated rights, including the right to water and the right to health, and can also lead to increased social inequality, social conflict, and segregation. Forced evictions from land, whether in rural or urban areas, therefore tie land access to a number of underlying human rights.”

A growing number of countries are making progress on improving land rights for women and men.
Kenya’s new constitution, approved by voters in 2010, provides women with unprecedented rights to land. Rwanda has provided farmers with documentation of their land rights. Uganda is rolling out a new land policy aimed at improving land tenure security. Tanzania is considering a new constitution that protects women’s rights to own and inherit land. India, having passed laws to provide women with equal inheritance rights, now has a variety of programs aimed at improving land rights for the poor and women in particular. And the list goes on.
As policymakers and non-state actors continue efforts to address generational poverty, it is imperative that the central role of secure land rights in poverty alleviation efforts is not overlooked. Secure rights to land can help us reach a broad array of development goals and are critical to ensuring that the world’s poorest women and men have an effective means of climbing out of poverty.

*Reem Gaafar graduated from the Georgetown University Law Center in 2001. She is an attorney and land tenure specialist with Landesa, a global development non-profit that works to secure land rights for the world’s poor women and men. Ms. Gaafar’s work focuses on strengthening the land and natural resource rights of smallholder farmers, particularly women, in Africa. Follow us @Landesa_Global