Gender and Land Dispossession: A Comparative Analysis


This paper was published by UN Women in July 2017. It was written by Michael Levien (assistant professor at John Hopkins University, USA) and studies the gendered impacts of rural land dispossession.

The paper discusses five case studies – from England, Gambia, India and Indonesia – where rural women were deprived of independent land rights. Such dispossession occurred without much consultation with the women and intensified their role in household ‘reproductive work’. The paper concludes that “…land dispossession consistently contributes to gender inequality.”

The 34-page publication contains six chapters: Introduction (chapter 1); Case 1: The English enclosures (chapter 2); Case 2: Wetland rice projects in Gambia (chapter 3); Case 3: Large dams in India (chapter 4); Case 4: Oil palm plantations in West Kalimantan (chapter 5); Case 5: Special economic zones in India (chapter 6).


  1. The English enclosure movement – which stretched from the 15th to the 19th century – refers to the slow and uneven privatisation of common agricultural lands. The movement dispossessed a great number of English peasants. In its early phases, lords would most often enclose lands independently, although this was slowed down by prevailing legislations. The government sanctioned the process only in the mid-18th century. The paper says that this resulted in a near total elimination of England’s common lands and its peasantry by 1840.

  2. Peasant households in Gambia – the paper notes – hold land under two customary tenure systems: kumanyango (where individuals are entitled to their own land) and maruo (where land is owned by the patrilineal household unit). In the pre-colonial period, men usually worked on wetland rice plots and women cultivated cereal in the highlands. Right before the country’s independence in 1965, British colonial officials imposed commercialised groundnut production in the highlands. This pushed men to start cultivating groundnut and left women to raise subsistence crops in the wetlands.

  3. The shift to groundnut production in Gambia resulted in rice shortages. Colonial authorities sought to increase rice production in the wetlands through double cropping and intensified labour. At this point, the male peasants were unwilling to take up the laborious task of cultivating paddy. The authorities attempted to appropriate the wetland plots of women farmers and employ them to grow rice.

  4. The Gambian government continued efforts to appropriate wetland plots for rice cultivation after independence, pushing landowners to become tenants on their own lands. Male peasants resisted having plots registered in the names of their female family members, and convinced government authorities to classify the wetland rice plots as belonging to the household (maruo) rather than individual women (kumanyango). This took away women’s independent land titles and enabled the household to make further claims over women’s unpaid labour.

  5. The expansion of oil palm plantations has been a major cause of land dispossession and deforestation in many South-East Asian countries since the 1980s. In Indonesia, palm oil forests were mostly held under customary tenure and cultivated by rural populations. Various studies on the country’s West Kalimantan province have noted that the customary system of land tenure in the region was relatively gender neutral. But women were excluded from formal politics despite their land titles. They had no say in negotiations with the government, which wanted to appropriate their land for privatised palm oil plantations.

  6. The report states that large river valley projects – “cornerstones of national development efforts in the twentieth century” – were the biggest source of dispossession in India and throughout the developing world. Less than a quarter of dam projects rehabilitated the displaced population.

  7. From the 1980s to the early 2000s, there were widespread protests against the construction of the Tehri dam in Uttarakhand, which submerged several villages. The report notes that the government only registered compensation plots in the names of men despite women in the region having independent land rights.

  8. Close to 600 special economic zones (SEZs) were approved in India between 2005 and 2008. State governments began acquiring land for these SEZs using the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 (now replaced with the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013) which allowed them to acquire private property for ‘public purposes’.

  9. The author, in 2009, conducted a survey of 94 families in villages adjacent to Mahindra World City. Located outside Jaipur, this was one of the first big SEZs to be established in north India. Land acquisition by the government deprived the surveyed villages of private farmland and common grazing land, affecting agricultural incomes. The author found that 75 per cent of the surveyed families felt they had lost more than they gained from SEZ’s establishment, 65 per cent reported a drop in income, and 50 per cent consumed lesser food than before.

    Focus and Factoids by Abizar Shaikh.