Keeping dignity at the center

Land rights are a crucial human rights issue as they enable access to basic facilities such as food, shelter, and security and are fundamental in achieving economic, social, and cultural rights. But the conversation around land rights is incomplete without considering dignity, an inherent part of all human rights issues. The right to live with dignity is enshrined in the Constitution of India, and the intrinsic dignity of all humans is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNHR).

Shipra Deo from Landesa–a nonprofit that aims to equip people experiencing poverty with equitable land rights using law and policy tools–advocates for dignity to be placed at the center of all development. “The UNHR, in its preamble, acknowledges inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all humans as the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world. The recognition that dignity is something everyone has by virtue of being a human being and is integral to one’s existence is important in realizing rights,” says Shipra. This recognition of human dignity has the potential to anchor the centrality of equal human rights or the equality of all persons–which is to say that there is no inherent reason why some individuals have the opportunity to actualize their goals and aspirations and others do not, highlights Shipra.

Ashwani Paliwal from Astha Sansthan–a nonprofit working on empowering Adivasi, Dalit, and single women (that is, divorced, widowed, separated, or older never-married women)–narrates an example that showcases the importance of interweaving dignity with any discussion on women’s land rights. “We worked with a woman who, along with her daughter, was abandoned by her in-laws. She was surviving by working as a manual worker and living in a religious institution without any security, always fearing for her and her daughter’s safety.” Ashwani adds how to improve her condition, the woman joined the Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan (ENSS) (The Association of Empowered Single Women). After a prolonged struggle with her in-laws, she secured ownership of her husband’s Land with support from the collective. “She got shelter and could fulfil her basic needs because of the Land. This is how land rights are connected to dignity–they help enhance a person’s self-respect and individuality,” notes Ashwani.

Living without food, shelter, and livelihood directly opposes living a dignified life. Shipra underscores that a person’s relationship to Land has a significant impact on their everyday life. “How they use the land, whether for livelihood or survival, is closely interlinked to an individual’s existence and dignity,” she says.

What do we stand to lose when dignity is ignored?

Neglecting the right to land further marginalizes women and other disadvantaged segments of society. Shipra notes, “Land is an important instrument of people’s identity. Not giving independent rights to women in places where land rights are a norm makes them invisible as an individual.” Similarly, the fact that all the existing inheritance laws are written in binary language diminishes the scope for the trans community to claim their land rights. “We stand the risk of losing the identity of these individuals when we do not consider their dignity and this has direct implications on their livelihood, housing, security, and quality of life,” adds Shipra. As a result, the first step for Landesa when working on land rights is to recognize women as independent individuals.

Helping women secure their land rights becomes even more challenging if the women don’t think of themselves as individuals deserving of land rights. “The women [we work with] are generally uninformed of their rights and never consider ownership of Land unless they are told [about it]. The struggle to obtain land rights is difficult. If their resolve isn’t strong, they lose the opportunity to use their Land effectively and gain the dignity attached to it,” adds Ashwani. The possession of Land becomes futile if the thought of living a dignified life through that piece of Land is missing. But Shipra says, “Even if the concept of dignity is not in their vocabulary, what women ultimately want is a life of equality and dignity.”

Societal pressure and prevailing cultural practices deter women from claiming their right to Land. | Picture courtesy: Meena Kadri CC BY

The link between land rights and dignity

Although living a dignified life is a fundamental right under the Constitution of India, Shipra points to the contradiction that emerges within our Constitution when speaking of land rights since agricultural Land is deemed a state subject and inheritance is a concurrent list subject. The diversity of laws with overlapping and sometimes conflicting provisions disadvantages women.

Land ownership not only impacts women personally but also affects their participation and involvement in community decisions.

“The areas under Schedule V and VI are treated differently by the Constitution to protect the traditions and identity of scheduled tribes. As a result, inheritance in these communities is governed by customary laws, not statutory ones,” says Shipra. She gives the example of Jharkhand. “As per the customary law of most scheduled tribes, a widowed woman cannot have the husband’s land in her name; she only has the right to be maintained and live on the land.” The men of the house–the brother-in-law or the son–have the ultimate claim on the Land in such a situation. Shipra calls these men ‘owners in waiting.’ For their claim to be substantiated sooner rather than later, they may inflict violence upon the woman to coerce them to leave the property. This constitutes a direct attack on the dignity of that woman, adds Shipra.

Particularly in villages, land ownership impacts women personally and their participation and involvement in community decisions. “A woman’s identity is created within the village when the Land is in her name. This empowers her to avail multiple opportunities,” explains Ashwani. A woman could use her Land as collateral for her children’s education. Land ownership documentation can also help women farmers in accessing government schemes. “When her perspective towards land shifts, a woman is able to take a stand against injustice and moves towards living a dignified life,” notes Ashwani.

Challenges to incorporating dignity in land rights

Societal pressure and prevailing cultural practices deter women from claiming their right to Land. 

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