IHC Global at World Urban Forum 10: Property Rights, Context, and Culture

This blog post was originally published on IHC’s Blog.

By Natalie R. Gill and edited by Sarah Belay

This is the first in a two-part series on IHC Global at the 10th World Urban Forum (WUF 10) that took place in Abu Dhabi, February 8th-13th, 2020. IHC Global was selected to convene two panels at the prestigious gathering of global leaders and stakeholders from academia, civil society, local governments, and the private sector. Historically, the Forums have helped stakeholders and constituencies raise awareness, exchange knowledge, and increase coordination and cooperation to advance sustainable urban development. WUF 10 coalesced around the theme “Cities of Opportunity: Culture and Innovation,”  and the idea that the cultural diversity of cities is a social asset that cities can harness to advance development in a variety of ways.

WUF 10 arrived at a critical moment: 60% of the world’s population lives in cities and it is anticipated this number will grow to 70% by 2050. Increasing cultural diversity will accompany urbanization, as the two causes of rapid urbanization – migration and population growth- result in different kinds of people working and living side by side. Critics sometimes say cultural diversity drives unrest, contributes to socioeconomic differences, and makes it more difficult for governments to manage unplanned urbanization. But, IHC Global agrees with UN-Habitat that the diversity of cultures- through their dynamism and creativity- presents an opportunity to advance sustainable development, rather than an impediment or barrier.

The two IHC Global-led panels at WUF 10 explored how to foster culture and innovation to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable through: (1) secure property rights and (2) technology and local partnerships. IHC Global identified these as crucial topics to explore because:

  1. The UN Declaration of Human Rights considers property rights a human right and it is widely agreed that they are a building block for economic security and the well-being of individuals.    
  2. Frontier technology will increasingly drive urban development, meaning that the human-centered approaches made possible by local partnerships will be crucial for equitable urban development. 

The first panel, “Property Rights, Culture, and Context,” engaged experts from Habitat for Humanity InternationalHuairou CommissionUN-Habitat/Global Land Tool Network, the World Bank, and IHC Global on the complexity of the nexus between property rights and culture in local contexts around the world. Below IHC Global identifies challenges of this complicated subject and the innovative solutions and insight proposed by the panelists. 

Why focus on property rights, context, and culture?

Tens of millions of people across the urban-rural spectrum live without secure tenure. This was the opening premise of Jane Katz,  Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI) Director of International Affairs and Programs as she reported on HFHI’s Solid Ground campaign. Jane explained that without formal land titles or documentation, “households are forced to operate in complex informal arrangements,” which makes them vulnerable to displacement and loss of livelihood. Research shows that insecure tenure is also associated with poor quality housing, access to basic services such as clean water and sanitation, and food insecurity. And as Jane noted, insecure tenure also undermines an individual’s freedom of movement: “Millions of people are unwilling to leave their homes for fear they may never be able to return.

Prindex is a joint initiative of Global Land Alliance & the Overseas Development Institute that measures perceptions of property security. www.prindex.net

On the other hand, functional property rights are an investment in the well-being of both an individual and their  community. Land titles and certificates of property ownership enable individuals to enter the formal economy they may be locked out of, because they are able to use their land or property as collateral to secure loans for income generating activities. Secure property rights also motivate individuals to invest in home improvements which raises the value of their property, further empowering them to leverage their property as an asset. Individual security of tenure has then has multiplying effects on the local and national economy: when property rights are formalized, they will drive investment, capital, and increase the national GDP.

How do women experience the effects of insecure tenure or formalized property rights?

Data provided by Prindex

Panelists Ombretta Tempra, Global Land Tool Network (GLTN) Unit of UN-Habitat Human Settlements OfficerMino Ramaroson, Huairou Commission Regional Coordinator-Africa, Ellen Hamilton, World Bank Lead Urban Specialist, and Judith Hermanson, IHC Global President and CEO, focused their presentations on women’s experience accessing land and property, agreeing that informality and insecure tenure are often gendered. In many places, a woman’s relationship to a male, whether a husband, brother, father, or uncle, determines her ability to own and manage land and property. This limits her income, freedom of movement, and ability to determine her own life outcomes. It also renders women more vulnerable to domestic violence, poverty, and HIV/AIDS, children more likely to suffer from poor nutrition.

They are also more likely to suffer property grabbing or eviction after divorce or spousal death, practices that may be enacted through intimidation, threats, and  physical violence. The trauma widows, daughters, and ex-spouses experience when they are denied these rights further compounds its devastating consequences. IHC Global President and CEO Judith Hermanson gave a compelling example from an IHC Global property rights pilot program in 2018.  IHC Global was told:

“I remember; this was the worst day of my life. When my dad passed away, my mum was denied our father’s properties and all things in our house. The relatives took everything, and we stayed without anything and we stayed outside with our mum’s friend.”

But, the panelists also shared the conviction that when women can access and operate land and property, they are uniquely positioned and motivated to enhance the lives of their families, communities, and themselves. Mino Ramaroson explained that that when women have secure property rights, they invest in productive activities for their family and communities, such as soil restoration and community boreholes. When women own property and land, they can make decisions and changes to their land that help advance climate change adaptation and mitigate resource competition. Indeed, according to USAID, in Rwanda, women with formalized land rights were 19% more likely to engage in soil conservation, compared to 10% of men. Secure land rights for women farmers is also linked to higher agricultural yields and the children of women with secure tenure are 33% less likely to be severely underweight and 10% less likely to be unhealthy.

If the benefits of secure tenure & land titles are well-known, why are women in different parts of the world unable to access land & property?

Data provided by the World Bank: https://wbl.worldbank.org/

According to the World Bank’s annual Women, Business, and the Law report, 40% of economies limit women’s land and property rights. Limiting women’s land and property rights encompasses a range of actions from full to partial denial and often stems from what Ombretta Tempra called “legal pluralism.” According to Ombretta, co-author of the GLTN report, “Increasing Women’s Access to Land in the Muslim World,” explained legal pluralism as “the mixture of sometimes overlapping and contradictory state laws, international declarations and frameworks, religious laws, and customs.” 

For instance, “Increasing Women’s Access to Land in the Muslim World,” examined joint marital property laws in Morocco. The report found that despite the 2004 Moudawana Family Code that supported joint marital property as part of a broader framework of gender equality, in practice joint marital property depended on the willingness of public notaries to approve the couple’s written agreement. Notaries themselves sometimes held religious beliefs that led them to deny a couple’s agreement, such as the belief that women needed a guardian to conclude contracts or hold property.

Judith and Ellen Hamilton, described a similar phenomenon that they called a “gap between law and practice,” where a country’s laws guarantee women equal property rights and access to land, but culture, social norms, and lack of awareness could undermine a woman’s ability to exercise these rights. Judith explained how in 2017, IHC Global applied a gender lens International Property Markets Scorecard to identify obstacles to women’s access to land and property in Uganda.

 IHC Global used the Scorecard, co-created with the Center for International Private Enterprise in 2011, to assess women’s ability to participate in Ugandan property markets through six components: regulation, financial transparency, rational dispute resolution, effective governance, access to credit, and property rights. The IHC Global policy paper, Using Data to Support Women’s Rights: Property Rights and Housing Markets Through a Gender Lensfound that that despite reasonably robust laws that safeguard women’s rights to property, they still struggle to exercise these rights.

CIPE and IHC Global


Customary law and traditional practices often stand at the root of this struggle. But IHC Global also found that women’s awareness of their constitutional rights played as well. In Uganda, women are sometimes unaware that the Ugandan Constitution guarantees their right to immovable property.  leading to compliance with forced eviction and property grabbing. For instance, custom, tradition, family dynamics or any combination could mean when a woman’s husband has died, his family would take the property from her and leave her and her children with nothing. When women do not know that state law supports their inheritance claim, they are more likely to comply with actions that deprive them of their property.

Ellen introduced a 2019 initiative by HFHI, the World Bank, GLTN, Huairou Commission, and Landesa called Stand For Her Land also based on findings that women are often unaware of their property and land rights. Judith and Ellen agreed that any successful advocacy program for women’s land and property rights would involve an intensive awareness-raising campaign for both women and their surrounding community

So what can development organizations do to help?

Jane, Ombretta, Mino, Ellen, and Judith all recognized that supporting property rights and land access requires understanding local culture and context and putting forward solutions that are innovative, gender-responsive, and culturally relevant. They agreed that addressing legal implementation of property rights, legal pluralism, culture, social norms, and awareness raising is a daunting task that cannot be completed in one fell swoop. WUF 10 provided the forum to share knowledge, lessons learned, and creative and innovative solutions. As Ombretta explained: “We can’t all lump women into the same category when it comes to land rights. Factors like income, and marital status affect their ability to access and own land.”


  1. Empower local women and grassroots organizations
  2. Mino spoke about why local women’s perspectives and women’s grassroots organizations are critical for advancing women’s land and property rights and gender equality. Empowering grassroots women and local leaders helps promote awareness, build constituencies and networks, and influence public policy and processes, said Mino. She explained how Huairou partnered with GLTN and UN-Habitat in Zambia and Uganda to empower women to access land and property through the Social Tenure Domain Model (STDM), a land tool that is pro-poor, gender-responsive, community-driven and locally customizable. Mino reported that in Uganda, this approach successfully produced 1,000 occupancy certificates on customary land.

  1. Include all members and leaders of the community, male and female, religious and secular, customary and traditional, family and neighbor
  2. Ombretta explained how the cultural relevance of Islamic law in parts of the Muslim world influenced women’s access to land. Ombretta reported that Muslim women in North Africa, for instance, may prefer to resolve land disputes through customary or religious law rather than state law because it felt less confrontational and allowed them to avoid choosing between upholding an inheritance claim and continuing to live with her family. “upholding an inheritance claim and continuing to live with her family.” GLTN realized that increasing women’s access to land in the Muslim world required the cooperation and support of local religious leaders and judges. This realization informs their programs to increase women’s access to land as they aim to include all community members in land dispute resolutions.

  1. Tailor approaches, tools, and methods to increase land access based on national and local contexts
  2. Jane reported on the different programs and approaches of the three-year HFHI-led global advocacy campaign Solid Ground. Solid Ground consisted of 17 partners including Huairou Commission, GLTN, and IHC Global, and advocated for security of tenure, gender equality, disaster resilience, and slum upgrading in 41 countries around the world. Jane elaborated on how with the support of local partners, each country initiative, identified the most pressing challenge and focus area specific to the needs of the location. In Cote d’Ivoire, for instance, the campaign helped develop a local land registry which produced 5,000 land documents. In Bangladesh, where 3.5 million people live in the slums of Dhaka, HFHI increased access to safe shelter meant participatory slum upgrading through community action planning, urban informal settlement mapping, and capacity building.  

  1. Identify through data collection and fieldwork what tool or practice has cultural salience and how to harness that cultural value, activity, or norm, to close the gap between policy and practice.
  2. Judith spoke about an IHC Global pilot program that supported women’s property rights in Uganda through a theater for development approach or simply put, storytelling. IHC Global used the data it collected in the 2017 Scorecard assessment to pilot an innovative property rights program. Theater, performance, and storytelling are centuries old traditions in Uganda, so much so that the Ugandan Ministry of Gender, Labor, and Social Development officially supports theater as part of national development.  IHC Global partnered with the Department of Theater and Arts at Makere University to dramatize women’s challenges to property rights and how they can assert those rights in a recognizable Ugandan context. 

    The performance and a post-performance Community Forum that engaged audience over land and property rights proved to be a successful strategy for awareness raising and advocacy for women’s land and property rights as it allowed people to explore feelings and experiences in a non-confrontational and anonymous way. In data collected after the event, 77.5% of respondents surveyed stated the information would be helpful in bringing about change including 79% of men and 76% of women. One respondent explained:

“After the play, I had to talk to my mother to visit the Administrator General to seek justice in order to reclaim her plot of land. Also, I talked to the area member of Parliament for guidance.”
  1. Don’t underestimate the significance of awareness-raising
  2. Looking forward, Ellen discussed the Stand for Her Land campaign,  a targeted advocacy campaign launched in 2019. The campaign seeks to empower women to realize their land rights around the world by improving implementation, raising awareness and understanding, and addressing discriminatory social norms and practices. The campaign so far provides resources on Uganda, Tanzania, Liberia, Kenya, India, and Ghana.


Panelists and attendees agreed the event was a success. Now is the time for practitioners, researchers, and advocates to consider new solutions, innovative and creative, to bridge the gap  between law and practice. Such solutions recognize both the critical importance of the right to own, inherit, and benefit from property rights and also the complexity of culture, custom, and power imbalances embedded in land and property conflicts and resolutions.


Look for the second part of this two-part series on the IHC Global WUF 10 event, “Technology and Local Partnerships,” soon!

Authored by Natalie R. Gill and edited by Sarah Belay

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