One persistent challenge facing global human rights activists is how to leverage the greatest asset in the developing world — land — into something that can uplift nations rather than be yet another avenue of colonial exploitation.
In rural communities, land ownership is typically transferred through marriage or inheritance and via cultural norms that prevent daughters from inheriting land. The non-profit global development organization Landesa explains the problem like this:
For example, in India a daughter is often regarded as an economic burden, especially to poor and landless families, because it is customary that the family must pay dowry to her husband’s family for her to be married. Dowry is seen as paid in lieu of her inheritance. In fact, “it is estimated that the average dowry today is equivalent to five times the family’s annual income and that the high cost of weddings and dowries is a major cause of indebtedness among India’s poor.” Likewise, in many countries in Africa, a daughter’s value may depend on her ability to fetch a bride price, paid to her family by her husband’s family. In both cases, the daughter does not have access to the assets that were transferred for the marriage, leaving her beholden to her husband and his family for her well-being.
This means the added income, nutritional benefits and mobility associated with land ownership is often out of reach for young women in the developing world. Sadly, this damages not just their individual prospects for economic betterment, but their entire community’s prospects as well. That’s because research shows that when women and their daughters secure rights to land and property the results are positive: an increase in net household income, increased expenditures on food and education, a decrease in the likelihood of domestic violence and a greater chance of preventing HIV/AIDS infection.
It’s an uphill battle though. For too long the prevailing wisdom has been that it’s simply too difficult to address deeply entrenched cultural practices which limit a girl’s access to important economic assets, including land. And when we factor in the prevailing wisdom from the conservative movement of this country that girls have inherently less value than boys and carry those values over to a global network, the nature of the challenge becomes only more acute. A President Romney, with the backing of a Tea Party Congress would not just make advancing land ownership reforms abroad more difficult, they would advocate against them all together.
That means the next president can and will help drive the direction of our global response to poverty generally and our fight for equal rights specifically. It’s not just lives of women in this country that may change dramatically for the worse after this election, it’s the lives of women and girls across the world.
Photo from hdptcar via flickr.