When Jashoda Das' husband died unexpectedly, she was left with little money, no land, and three children to raise on her own in rural India. Her youngest son was just 3 years old. She worried they would be kicked off the government land the family was squatting on. "I lived in fear," Das told Refinery29 through a translator. In the years that followed, Das struggled to stretch her small wages as a day laborer to cover basic costs like food. Her son eventually dropped out of school and began traveling to find work for months at a time. She married her daughters off at the young ages of 14 and 16 because she was unable to afford to take care of them any longer. India accounts for one-third of all child marriages around the world, according to UNICEF, and poverty like Das' family experienced is an overwhelming factor. And Das was far from alone: India is home to 15 million poor, rural, landless families, according to Landesa, a Seattle-based nonprofit that advocates for land rights for poor families in developing countries across the globe. Then a local health worker came and told Das about a program that would grant her land of her own. In February 2014, she received 0.008 acres of homestead land — an area similar in size to some micro-apartments — in the village of Laxmipur. Now, she has a house and a small garden where she grows pumpkins, leafy greens, and other vegetables. "It’s perfect for me," she said. "I have a safe place to reside." It isn't unusual to see such large dividends from such a small piece of land, advocates say. Land rights, the nonprofit believes, is a key factor in the fight to end extreme poverty — a major plank of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by world leaders at the start of this year's United Nations General Assembly.
It gives you an identity, it gives you proof of residence...a huge amount of difference has been made to women who have land.
Sanjoy Patnaik, India Country Director for Landesa
Das is one of more than 2,000 women from the state of Odisha who have received a plot as part of a locally run program supported by Landesa. Founded in 1967, Landesa has worked with governments in 50 countries, including China, Rwanda, and Tanzania. It estimates it has helped 115 million rural families secure land rights so far. That number is expected to continue to grow, thanks in part to a $2 million Hilton Humanitarian Prize the group received this month from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. "In the world’s poorest rural societies, access to land rights is everything,” Judy Miller, vice president and prize director for the foundation, added. "Land serves as a source of food, housing, income, and credit, and it can both empower individuals and provide social status and influence." For Das, property has provided both security and income. She used part of the plot she received through the Women Support Centre, a government-run program designed and supported by Landesa, to start farming and selling mushrooms with her son. The business has flourished.
She now harvests about one kilogram of mushrooms a day, which she and her son sell for 120 rupees, or about $2. They spend a third of the revenue on food, she said. She plans to use some of the profits to expand her business, buying more straw to use to grow the fungi. She's even making enough to help support one of her daughters, who moved home with her husband and young children. "I am much better off now," Das said. In India, where nearly a third of the country's population lives below the international poverty line, landlessness is a greater predictor of poverty than illiteracy or being a member of a lower caste, according to Landesa CEO Chris Jochnick. "Secure land rights are transformational for the world's poor," he said in a statement. The benefits can be especially strong for women, who in many places were precluded from owning land in the past. In Odisha, single women weren't even counted in surveys or eligible for social services until Landesa brought the issue to the government's attention. Landesa has found that access to property “works like a gatekeeper right, in triggering a number of other rights for women,” Sanjoy Patnaik, Landesa's country director in India, told Refinery29. Research by Landesa and other groups have shown that extending land rights to women leads to improvements in nutrition and school enrollment for entire families, Patnaik said.
I am working now and I am able to feed my family. That is my happiness.
"It gives you an identity, it gives you proof of residence…a huge amount of difference has been made to women who have land," he said. The group is now trying to tackle the problem of landlessness among women at an even earlier age, through a program that teaches girls their rights as well as skills they can use to earn an income and be self-sufficient. Educating women about the opportunities available to them is key to achieving success, organizers say. Das hopes her story can show to others the positive impact land can have on a woman's life. She said she wants to encourage women in India and beyond to seek land and pursue farming careers of their own. "I am working now and I am able to feed my family," she said. "That is my happiness.”