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At its 2014 Land and Poverty Conference in March, the World Bank highlighted the efficacy of producing computerised land-related data using satellites, drones, databases and other sources such as traditional surveys. This makes it easier and quicker to register land and generate title deeds, and — being digital — it means poor smallholder farmers can access deeds from local land registration offices rather than having to travel long distances to a town where paper copies would otherwise be stored.

As SciDev.Net reported, some conference delegates pointed to potential complications. They are right to be concerned: creating and digitising land registries could exacerbate unfair land grabs or further marginalise people who may not have the right to claim land they live on or farm.

There is also the danger that this technology may reinforce women’s unequal access to ownership and control of land. The topic of gender inequalities around land tenure is much discussed in development, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, for example, has a global database with up-to-date information and analysis on such inequalities. [1]

Although 70 per cent of Africa’s farmers are women, patriarchal customary law often holds sway, excluding them from owning or controlling land. Even in matrilineal societies, where property and land inheritance follows the female line, such as those in Malawi, in reality the maternal uncle — or mwini mumba — will control the land.

Such discrimination in land access and decision-making is a key barrier to empowering poor women, lowering their status in the community and preventing them from borrowing money against collateral to improve their farming methods or to start small businesses.

Digitising land ownership is something of a double-edged sword. If land registry digitising projects were to blithely record the name of the head of the family as the proprietor of the land, this could further erode women’s limited control over land. But, done with sensitivity to the complex dynamics around land ownership, they could offer the chance to record women’s rightful access to land officially, while also providing quick and easy access to title deeds.

The challenge is how to do this when land is so often considered the property of the male household head. One way could be to record the name of the person who farms the land, rather than the person who traditionally controls it.

To begin with, promoters of land digitisation projects should be aware of its potential to dispel one of the largest barriers to women’s empowerment: their unequal access to land. To do this, digitising technology must be used wisely.

Henrietta Miers has worked across Africa and Asia as a gender and social development consultant for 20 years, specialising in gender policy. She is senior associate of WISE Development, a consulting company that focuses on boosting economic opportunities for poor women.


[1] Gender and Land Rights Database (UN FAO, accessed 28 May 2014)