Vulnerable Land, Vulnerable Women: Gender Dimensions of Land Grabbing in Myanmar

Land grabs, which refer to land being taken without due process or fair compensation, were first legalized in Burma (as Myanmar was then known) in 1894. The legal framework that the British established in 1894 remains to this day and has, throughout history, perpetuated a system through which millions of acres of farmland have been confiscated and re-allocated by the government. Land often goes through various cycles of allocation, re-confiscation and reallocation after being grabbed. As the new government attempts to address previous land grabs, this complex history of ownership combined with a lack of land titling and documentation makes it extremely challenging to identify legitimate claimants seeking return of land or compensation. Land grabs have only increased in recent years with Myanmar’s nascent integration into the global economy and land reforms that have re-classified large areas of land as vacant or fallow land. Concurrent trends, including a spike in global land prices, agricultural sector reform, vertical integration of the food supply chain and increased demand for land from Myanmar’s primary trading partners, has exacerbated this problem. Foreign corporations, military-affiliated holding companies, and domestic cronies1 have benefited massively. The main losers are women. Because of systemic discrimination in Myanmar’s political, legal and economic systems, women are more vulnerable to having their land grabbed and are more negatively affected when it is taken.

Globally, women’s access to land has been positively linked to agricultural efficiency, gender equality and various other development indicators. The importance of equal access to land for women has not been recognized by or incorporated into policy or practice in Myanmar. Women’s access and ownership of land is highly insecure because of customary practices, unequal political representation, discriminatory economic policy and numerous other factors. Laws and customary rights around inheritance make women vulnerable to loss of land. Almost all local government officials responsible for land administration are men, resulting in policies and practices that disproportionately favor men. Women lack agency in decisions around land and are more vulnerable to land grabs. While laws themselves may grant equality to women, in practice this does not manifest into equitable outcomes. Importantly, the complex and often contradictory legal framework around land increases the importance of connections to local administrators rather than legal rights.

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