Dispossession of Women's Land

The audacity of the request of Zelophehad's daughters.

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Unsurprisingly, problems are particularly acute surrounding inheritance and death. In one emblematic, ancient-sounding story whose contours are outrageously common today, a Ugandan woman tells of how within a month of her husband's death, she was chased by her in-laws from the land she had long shared with her husband. The widow returned to her childhood home, only to be confronted by her brother, who had legally inherited the plot from their now-deceased parents. He, in turn, chased away his destitute sister and her five children. 

But the stakes are even higher than the tremendous indignity visited upon this widow. Because women produce up to 80% of the developing world's food, insecurity in women's access to land translates into insecurity in the food supply.   A productive harvest that may have fed an entire network of families can easily evaporate when a woman is disinherited or evicted. Without secure tenure, women are often unable "to borrow small amounts of money to buy seeds and other essential inputs" and are "excluded from training and farmers' cooperatives."  Hunger and poverty are the starkly inevitable outcomes under these perversely unjust ownership regimes.

We cannot, of course, rely on a Divine ruling to reshape the laws and practices that bar women from secure access to land. We can, however, support the modern-day daughters of Zelophehad--support typified by the organization Elgar Prathisthan, an AJWS grantee. Elgar Prathisthan works with marginalized tribal women in Maharashtra, India to attain control and title over their land and to recover land that has been unlawfully taken from them. Along with raising awareness of these issues, the organization also presses the government to protect the land rights of vulnerable communities and populations.

We can hope that the efforts of stiff-necked and strong-willed people, like those who work with Elgar Prathisthan, will one day make the daughters of Zelophehad obsolete--transforming their story from global reality into arcane tale, merely a curious memory in a world more bountiful and just.

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Rachel Farbiarz

Rachel Farbiarz is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law. Rachel worked as a clerk for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, after which she practiced law focusing on the civil rights and humane treatment of prisoners.