What ‘Downton Abbey’ can teach us about women and inheritance

Remember when Lady Mary and Matthew were figuring out how to divvy up her inheritance? 

As fans of Downton Abbey know, women’s lack of inheritance rights have brought down dynasties, impelled marriages and divided families.

What may surprise Abbey fans is that women’s inheritance rights are not only a concern for those with fine silver, snuff box collections, and vast estates.

In fact, though it may sound like an oxymoron, inheritance rights – particularly land rights – are even more important for poor rural women from Uganda to Uttar Pradesh.

They are, a growing body of research indicates, vital not just for individual women and their children, but for also for solving generational poverty globally.

How so?

The vast majority of the poorest of the poor around the world live in rural areas. They are more often than not farmers. So land is typically their most important asset.  And when they die, they pass along little else to their children.

But, in the majority of the developing world, women are either legally and/or culturally prevented from inheriting that land – despite the fact that in some countries women do as much as 80 percent of the agricultural labor.

Across the developing world, when a family patriarch dies, usually it is the male heirs who carve up the inheritance – which in the vast majority of cases in the developing world means land and little else. Unmarried daughters (poor versions of Lady Mary) and widows are sometimes accommodated with small parcels as a sign of kindness or magnanimity. But they are often displaced from their land and their home and left penniless without any way to support themselves or their children. And unlike Lady Mary, most of these displaced women don’t have education, non-agricultural skills, or social graces to fall back on.

So instead of inheriting property, women inherit poverty for generation after generation.

And this is a shame. Because research shows that when women have resources like land, they are more likely than men to use those resources to benefit their children and help their family climb out of poverty.

According to a USAID study in Nicaragua and Honduras, women with land rights contribute a greater proportion of income to the household than men.  And children in households with women landowners had higher levels of educational attainment.

Likewise, a study in Nepal found that malnutrition is reduced by half when the mother owns land. A similar study in Ghana found that households in which women own land spend more of their income of food than households in which women are not landowners.

The reasons land ownership can transform women and their families are pretty simple. Land is power. And having control over land gives women a say and makes her less likely to tolerate abuse, more of a say in making important family decisions, and more likely to take good care of the land she farms.

And the benefits extend to improved food security as well. Research indicates that if women had the same access to land as men, women could significantly increase yields on their farms.

We can do better and should do better.

Developing countries such as Burundi and Mexico need to change their laws to give women equal rights to land and other family resources and equal inheritance rights. Kenya’s progressive new constitution adopted in 2010 is a good example of first steps toward this, but is currently being endangered by a new bill that would strip women of their rights to inherit land and other family resources.

Developing countries must also ensure that their regulations support gender neutral land rights. The State of West Bengal, India, did exactly this a few years ago, adding a line on their “patta” or title documents to ensure that both men and women’s names were recorded on these documents.

But as women around the world know all too well, having good laws is necessary but not sufficient.  Customs can remain deeply influential even after the law is changed, especially in rural areas. So countries such as Uganda and India that already have laws allowing women and girls to equally inherent farmland (India’s Hindu Succession Act is a great example of this) need to develop programs that encourage behavior change.

In Kenya, for example, my organization has partnered with USAID to convince tribal elders and chiefs, typically the most important authority figures in rural areas, that their community would be more peaceful and less poor if they supported women’s equal rights to own and inherit land and manage family resources. This short video spotlights the impact: women have been elected as tribal elders, girls are attending school in unprecedented numbers, and families report being more food secure.

By no means is women’s land rights a panacea. But it does put a powerful tool in the hands of the person within the family most likely to act with the entire family’s interest in mind.

If we don’t make progress on this, we condemn poor women around the world to, in the words of Lady Mary, continue “fishing with no bait.”

Tim Hanstad is President and CEO of Landesa, a global development non-profit that works to secure land rights for the world’s poor. Follow us @Landesa_Global