Welcome to the March Edition of the Best Practices Feature. To celebrate the annual International Women’s Day (IWD) on 08 March, this feature seeks to illustrate five practical ways to increase women’s access to housing, land and property (HLP). For women, access to land means security, stability, independence and freedom. This is according to the Women and Land in the Muslim World report which provides practical and evidence-based guidance on how to improve women’s access to land.

IWD marks the development of women in the social, economic, cultural and political arenas. The theme this year is “Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change” This puts innovation by women and girls, for women and girls, at the heart of efforts to achieve gender equality.

Gender equality and adequate living standards are achieved by ensuring women have access to, use and control land and other productive resources. Gender inequality to land and productive resources is attributed to poverty and exclusion. Some of the significant barriers which prevent women from accessing land include:

  1. Social Prescribed Gender Roles;
  2. Unequal Power Dynamics at Household and Community Level;
  3. Discriminatory Family Practices;
  4. Unequal Access to Justice, Institutions and Land Administration;
  5. Traditional Norms;
  6. Local Tenure Relationships.

Today, many women still lack provisions to hold land rights independently of their husbands or male relatives throughout the world. In traditional/customary societies, women’s direct access to land through purchase or inheritance is often limited. Many women are becoming the heads of the family due to divorce, separation, labor mobility and death. This makes them the decision makers for the day-to-day activities such as the provision to shelter, food and household financial commodities. Only a few hold secure access to land ownership. Similarly, there are societies where access to land stems from the female lineage, and male partners may be disadvantaged as cultures change.

Urbanization continues to play a major role in ongoing societal changes. Studies estimate that about 30 - 40 per cent of women in urban areas are responsible for food and other household commodities. This number is expected to increase in developing countries. Gender dynamics focus a lot on the laws and institutions, but we need to address social dynamics. Women’s land, housing and property (HLP) rights are regulated by international, national, religious and customary laws. However, there are five practical ways that can facilitate women’s access to HLP, these include:

  1. Building on Existing Legal Frameworks;
  2. Administering Gender Responsive Inheritance Practices;
  3. Registering Marriage Contracts;
  4. Increase Access to Credit and Microfinance;
  5. Focusing on the Displaced Women and their Access to Land.

Five ways to improve women's access to HLP

1. Building on Existing Legal Frameworks

International law and existing global goals play an important role in protecting women’s land rights across geographical regions and cultural and religious differences. The Sustainable Development Goals advocates for women’s access to, control and ownership of productive resources – land in particular, and the need for gender equality in tenure.

The New Urban Agenda, which is a blueprint for planning cities, envisages cities and human settlements that “fulfill their social function - the social and ecological function of land - with a view to progressively achieving the full realization of the right to adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, without discrimination”. Also, several regional treaties regulate and protect women’s access to land.

In addition to the global and regional frameworks, national constitutions, policies, laws, and regulations play an important role in ensuring inclusive access to land and housing for all, including women. Below is a good practice which demonstrates how marital property rights for women was increased through secular legal reforms in Turkey.


In 1926, married couples in Turkey could initiate a divorce based on a mutual understanding. While the wife retained control of her property rights, all types of property acquired by the family were under the control and management of the husband. As a result, many women lost their right of ownership to property registered under the husband’s name. In 2002, a new Civil Code was introduced to bring gender equality in the marriage. The husband was no longer the sole owner of the property acquired by the family. Joint ownership for the marital property was provided under the new code.

Where there is co-ownership, a spouse can demand the full undivided allocation of property upon providing evidence of a predominant interest over that property. Each spouse retains individual ownership rights over his or her personal property or that which was acquired prior to the marriage or received as personal gifts during the marriage. More specifically, both spouses have equal rights over acquired property and the marital home.

2. Administering Gender Responsive Inheritance Practices

Studies show that men and women acquire the majority of land in rural areas through inheritance. Therefore, inheritance makes it one of the key avenues for women to acquire independent owner of land and property. This shows the importance of adopting more gender response in the inheritance processes.

Customary inheritance rules and male-dominated practices complicate women's conditions, but in other contexts, customary law provides positive options that enable women’s access to land, as presented in the case studies of Indonesia and Malaysia. The good practice below demonstrates how customary law can coexist with elements of religious law and have a positive influence on women access to land.

CASE STUDY: Malaysia

In Malaysia, women, and men have equal rights to own and inherit land under the constitution and land legislation, but Muslim women’s right to own and inherit land is regulated by sharia law and generally half of a man’s in the same degree of relationship. Land ownership is legally based upon a customary law which sees that ancestry land and rights are passed from mothers to daughters. If the couple does not have any daughters, the land will be inherited by the nieces, female relatives or the nearest female descendants of the mother, rather than to the son/s.

Sharia courts determine the proportion of ownership between a couple. This is based on the contribution of each spouse which also determines the division of property in case of sale or divorce. The wife can claim a third of the value of land acquired during marriage in the case of a divorce or death of the husband, which may be increased depending on the nature of the work done by her on the property. If the wife has helped increase the productivity of the land, she is entitled to half of the property.

3. Registering Marriage Contracts

Today, many women get married to customarily. Unregistered marriages, divorces, and polygamy can have a significant impact on women’s security of tenure. Matrimonial regimes comprise of “separate property” and “joint property regimes.” In the separate property regimes, each spouse owns the property separately, including land, which is often registered in a single name before and throughout the course of the marriage. This does not create any legal presumption of co-ownership of assets acquired by the other spouse. In the joint property regimes, property acquired or owned during a marriage belongs equally or substantially to both spouses.

Joint marital property entails property (including house and land) that is acquired during marriage and belongs to the couple on the assumption that – whether or not one of them brought into the marriage more financial assets - the cash and kind contributions of both members of the couple are acknowledged and valued. Joint marital property does not include properties owned individually by a spouse prior to the marriage or acquired as an individual inheritance, income or gift during marriage.

Women's empowerment is promoted through access to joint marital property as it strengthens their property management powers, gives them bargaining power against unilateral divorce and improves their access to credit and other opportunities. Joint marital property is also an element that rebalances the perception of women’s and men’s roles within the family, recognizing the critical contribution of women to the overall well-being and prosperity of the family, and generally giving women more status. Joint marital property regimes put marriage on the moral foundation of “equal co-operative partnership of different efforts,” recognizing both material and non-financial contributions. The good practice below demonstrates how marital property rights for women in Indonesia were increased through the adaptation of customary law and incorporated into the religious legal tradition.


In 1994, local authorities in Cairo, added key specifications to the marriage contracts to enhance the legal rights of both spouses. In particular, a list of seven issues which would be raised by the spouses-to-be was developed.

Among these questions, some key ones relate to access to housing, land, and property. For example, agreement on who keeps the matrimonial home and the household furnishings in the event of a divorce. An agreement that if the husband divorces his wife without her consent and with no reason from her part, she shall have the right to compensation, which they shall specify as a lump sum or a monthly stipend, in so far as this exceeds the rights established in law. Today, marriage contracts in Egypt allow for the inclusion of land and property clauses, but more awareness is needed to enable Egyptian women to use this option.

4. Increase Access to Credit and Micro-finance

A lack of enough financial resources prevents women from accessing and purchasing land, property, and housing. This is due to limited access to credit, unemployment and low formal employment rates where women earn less salaries as compared to men employed in similar positions.

The socio-economic impact of cooperatives for promoting and strengthening women’s access to land and its use in production, consumption, and sustenance also needs to be recognized. Cooperatives can play an essential role in increasing women’s land ownership and accessibility by providing solutions to a lack of funds to purchase property, accessibility to financing, the ability to rent and manage property or land for agricultural production and the ability to market the produce or invest in the property.

Issues of poverty alleviation, employment, income generation, food security, social inclusion, and empowerment can thus be resolved along with access to land by providing credit and financial services. In addition, adoption of minimal interest rates, or even no interest at all, as in the case of revolving funds and other complementary services (e.g., employment, provision of marketing services and means to overcoming local barriers in accessing markets, capacity development, etc.). Governments should encourage the formation of women’s cooperatives and increase the cooperatives’ access funds, soft loans, rotating funds, and markets.

5. Focusing on the Displaced Women and their Access to Land

One of the major challenges that displaced persons face is access to land and housing. This is made harder for displaced women as conflict exacerbate existing inequalities and promote gender discrimination making them the most vulnerable, and in relation to their access to land, housing, and property.

Their housing, land, and property (HLP) rights are violated by the parties to the conflict, at times by their national laws, and by their communities and families. They face multiple discriminations: as women, as refugees or IDPs, as members of economically disadvantaged groups and as members of ethnic and or religious minorities. These layers of discrimination also limit the ability to access justice, courts hearings and pay for the lawyers. Loss or the inability to access civil documentation, legal stay issues and statelessness also constrain access to land. Protecting women’s HLP rights in displacement and conflict contexts is extremely challenging, but equally important.

Women empowerment can be achieved by increasing women's access to land, especially in conflict-affected contexts. Despite the harsh conditions endured by women during conflicts, these also offer an opportunity for change as seen in the good practice below. The practice demonstrates how peace and stability measures paved the way for the displaced Yazidi community in Iraq and turn to provide fit-for-purpose land administration.


Over the years, the Yazidi community in Iraq has experienced massive displacements caused by historical injustices and internal conflicts. Most Yazidis have never been issued with a certificate of ownership due to discriminatory policies dating back 40 years. In 2014, armed violence escalated which led to massive destruction of homes and infrastructure. This, in turn, resulted in the displacement of over 3.2 million people. Over 250,000 Yazidis were forced to flee following the invasion of Sinjar, and unoccupied Yazidi settlements were systematically demolished.

UN-Habitat in partnership with UNDP, GLTN and the local authorities developed a project seeking to end the historical discrimination of Yazidis on land and property rights, housing, and the destruction caused by the conflict in partnership with UNDP, GLTN and the local authorities. Using a multi-dimensional approach, the project sought to address basic services, emergency shelters, house rehabilitation and capacity development of local and national authorities. Technical reconstruction was also conducted through local contractors and with the direct involvement of returnees on the construction.

In 2017, occupancy certificates were issued to over 300 families in. This represented the first tenure documents that the Yazidis community-acquired since they settled in the region in the 1970s. Priority of beneficiary was given to female-headed households which comprise of widows and young pregnant women. This project prevented conflicts related to land rights because the returnees were recognized as the real house owner. Local authorities officially acknowledged their claims, thus preventing future land grabbing, forced evictions and subsequent and unlawful occupations.


The main areas of recommendations are:

  1. Advocating and raising awareness on women and land
  2. Learning to work in contexts with multiple legal systems
  3. Protecting women’s land rights at the time of marriage
  4. Protecting women’s inheritance rights
  5. Strengthening women’s rights of use to land and housing
  6. Providing practical support for women and women groups
  7. Increasing women’s access to justice and dispute-resolution mechanisms
  8. Focusing on solutions for displaced women
  9. Improving the land administration
  10. Reforming constitution, policy and law



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