Land Tenure Security in the Chars of Bangladesh: Scaling up women's land rights: key lessons

On the occasion of land titles distribution, landless become land owners 

In recognition of its efforts towards achieving gender equality on land settlement for landless families, the Char Development and Settlement Project-IV (CDSP IV), Bangladesh was awarded IFAD's Gender Award for Asia and the Pacific Region for 2017. The journey towards women's empowerment was not easy. The project's story shows many struggles, which it has successfully overcome since its inception in 1994.

At present, 33,000 landless families have received 33,000 land titles. The number of male and female beneficiaries is equal, as the husband and wife are getting an equal share of the settled land. Around 43,000 acres of land have been given to the landless families. In CDSP-IV, 16,000 acres of land have been distributed to the 12,000 landless families. According to latest surveys, 84.6 per cent of settled families retain their land. All of the families have improved water supply and sanitation, household assets have been increased by over 500 per cent and malnutrition has reduced from 57 per cent to 43 per cent. Settled families are more secure and their annual income has increased by 395 per cent.

Key lessons which have been internalized in the CDSP journey over the years are:

1. EQUAL RIGHTS  The ownership of the settled land provided equally to wife and husband, with a share of 50:50 has ensured equal rights.
2. INCLUSIVENESS  Widows and divorcees were eligible to get ownership of government khas land which has ensured inclusiveness.
3. EMPOWERMENT  Putting the wives' names first in the land title which supported the empowerment of women.
4. ACCESSIBILITY  Title Deed signing / registration done at field level which has ensured better administration at the doorstep.

The project's successful journey started in addressing the severe environmental challenges posed by the river's delta in Noakhali District in southeast Bangladesh. Every year in Bangladesh thousands of families lose their houses, land, and livelihoods to erosion. The river cyclically breaks through the embankment and floods the land. River-eroded families usually go to the adjacent newly accreted low-lying land, known as chars, to resettle their houses and livelihoods. The chars are naturally formed from silt carried by the rivers to the Bay of Bengal. On average 1.1 billion tons of sediment are carried down by the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna river system, the largest sediment load in any river system in the world.

The newly accreted land becomes the property of the government (khas land) and is transferred to the Forest Department to plant trees that help to stabilize the land. After 20 years, the land is considered fit for settlement. Without anywhere else to go, many river-eroded families try to rebuild their lives on the newly emerged chars, often before the 20 years have expired.

Living conditions on the newly accreted chars are harsh. The land is completely inaccessible and can only be reached by boat and foot. The people living there are exposed to harsh conditions and the land gets flooded on a regular basis. There is no safe drinking water, no health service or sanitation, no agricultural inputs, no education and no legal or social structures. When occupying the land, women and men most likely face the Bahini, local power groups, who take control in the absence of any other structures. The Bahini often press for money and take away livestock and produce from the newly settled landless people.

To address this terrible situation and to develop improved and more secure livelihoods for poor settlers on the newly accreted coastal chars, the Government of Bangladesh with the help of IFAD and the Government of the Netherlands, has adopted an integrated approach: with the introduction of Char Development and Settlement Project (CDSP) phase-4, one of the main tasks is to provide legal land titles to landless char dwellers.

Building on previous phases of the project and their successful approach to solving land tenure issues, the project conducted an extensive plot-to-plot survey to identify pieces of land and their current occupiers. The project also led the administrative process for the official registration of the land titles, organized public hearings to confirm the landless households, and registered the title in both the wife’s and the husband’s name in the electronic land record management system. These innovative features are unique to the project and have led to a faster and more accurate land settlement process.

Official land titles give rural women and men social recognition. As land is the most critical resource in the char area, the possession of land strengthens the owner’s position in the community and enables them to make medium- and long-term investments. They can build better houses, grow vegetables and rear livestock. They can create their own employment, invest in new technologies, increase their incomes and sustain their livelihoods. In addition, by writing the wife’s name first in the legal document, the project ensured that the wife is legally entitled to 50 per cent of the total land. This simple step strengthens her position in the family, gives her uninterrupted access to the land and a legal position in many decision-making processes, and protects her in cases of conflict with her husband.

Mohammad Rezaul Karim acts as the Land Settlement Advisor in the Technical Assistance Team of the CDSP-IV Project. He is responsible for leading a team of the land sector which is responsible for the settlement of Khas (Government) land to the landless people of different char (Newly accreted area from seabed) areas under Noakhali district of Bangladesh.