Reuters International

By Astrid Zweynert

OXFORD, England (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Laws giving men and women equal rights to land are not enough to ensure equality if they are not accompanied by efforts to empower and educate women, said the head of an organisation working to put the power of the law into people's hands.

In more than half of all countries, laws or customs hinder women's ownership or access to land, undermining development and the fight against poverty, studies have shown.

"Our starting point is the law … but it has to be an approach in which you can take the power of the law and put it in the hands of people," said Vivek Maru, chief executive of Namati, which trains and deploys grassroots legal advocates to work with disadvantaged communities.

Maru, who spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation before being awarded the $1.25 million (880,521 pound) Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship at a conference in Oxford, cited Myanmar as an example where women are at risk of being left behind even though a new land law does not discriminate against them.

Land ownership is a complex issue in the Southeast Asian country as it emerges from decades of military rule. Fighting between ethnic insurgents and the army, which flared up in Kachin state in the north after a ceasefire fractured, has weakened communities' rights and driven more than 100,000 civilians from their homes.

Many worry whether they will still be able to access their farmland when peace returns and have accused the army of seizing swathes of land.

Fresh land disputes were fuelled by the semi-civilian government of former President Thein Sein whose liberalisation policies drove up land prices and attracted foreign and domestic investment, according to analysts.

Women in Myanmar have benefitted far less from land registration efforts - 80 percent of more than 2,000 applications came from men, Namati said in a report published this month.

"It is crucial to take steps to help communities to understand the laws and how to go through a process to claim tenure, otherwise you risk leaving the most vulnerable behind and that usually means women," Maru said.

Almost all the government officials dealing with land registration in Myanmar are male, Namati's report said.

Only 42 out of 16,758 village administrators are women and there is no female administrator in the country's 330 townships, the report found.

Namati, founded in 2011, has trained hundreds of community paralegals in eight countries, including Uganda, the Philippines, Mozambique and India.

Sometimes referred to as "barefoot lawyers", Namati's advocates have helped 5,000 stateless people in Kenya and Bangladesh to get legal identity documents and with Mozambique's government to increase awareness of health policies and how to seek redress in case of grievances.

"There are more than four billion people without the protection of the law," said Maru, a lawyer who started working with local communities in Sierra Leone in 2003, a year after a decade-long civil war ended.

"With the grassroots local knowledge deployed, you can fix a lot of things, even broken systems," he said.

(Reporting by Astrid Zweynert; Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories)

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