No shortage of data but how can it help to boost women's property rights?

The hands of a Nepali woman are pictured as she separates paddy saplings in this 2011 file photo. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

There’s an urgent need for more nuanced, systematic data collection on asset ownership by individuals, particularly women

More than 20 years ago the Beijing Platform for Action demanded a fairer deal for women. Since then there’s been remarkable progress. Many more girls are in school, and more women are living longer, healthier lives.

But there’s been little progress on another key development yardstick for women—the right to own productive assets like land, homes, livestock, and bank accounts. This right is fundamental to anyone’s chances of escaping poverty. But it’s particularly important for women, who can be marginalized in ways that men rarely experience.

Assets empower their owners to make life-changing decisions. Women, particularly in developing countries, usually own less than men, despite doing more than their share of work. But the startling reality is that there’s little solid data on precisely how much less they own.

This makes it difficult to shape effective policies and programs. It also makes it hard to achieve the first Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) to end poverty, and the fifth to empower all women and girls.

The problem is that conventional asset surveys collect data on ownership at household level. But households don’t own assets—people do, either exclusively or jointly. So, the surveys deliver few insights into the deprivation of individuals within the household. No light is shed, for example, on women in patriarchal households, nor on men at households run by women.

Data on individual assets can deliver these insights, deepening our understanding of poverty. A study of multidimensional poverty encompassing asset ownership, conducted in Karnataka, India, found men and women were equally poor when the poverty line was defined at the household-level. But women were 34 percentage points worse off when data was disaggregated by gender.


There’s an urgent need for more nuanced, systematic data collection on asset ownership by individuals, particularly women. Efforts so far have been sporadic, hamstrung by the lack of an internationally standardized approach.

The good news is that such an approach will soon be unveiled. Next year the United Nations Statistics Division will produce methodological guidelines for the Evidence and Data for Gender Equality project (EDGE). Based on pilot surveys, the guidelines will help countries to generate the asset data needed for good policies.

The pilots, conducted by the Asian Development Bank, showed the value of the new approach and why some countries will need sustained help to implement it.

They measured reported ownership, based on respondents’ assessments of who owns an asset, as well as documented ownership.

In Mongolia, they found 60 percent of men and 33 percent of women were reported owners of dwellings, compared with 80 percent of men and 76 percent of women in Georgia, and 34 percent of both men and women in Cavite, a province of the Philippines. Documented ownership was lower in all cases, and among women.

Reported and documented ownership of agricultural land were under 10 percent for men and women in Cavite and in Mongolia, but significantly higher in Georgia. Men were the dominant asset owners in all three countries.

Such discrepancies often reflect social customs such as a bias towards boys, which can hold sway even if progressive laws exist.

In Georgia, for example, there are no legal barriers to women’s property ownership. Still, preference is often given to men in property inheritance, ownership and administration.

Marriage can also erode a woman’s right to assets. In rural areas and among ethnic communities of Vietnam it is customary upon marriage that a girl loses the right to inherit from her parents.


EDGE guidelines will help countries navigate these complexities, but come with their own challenges. For a start, they require determining who the owners are; the legal owner or someone deemed the owner by social norms?

The role of development partners is crucial. National statistics offices are often poorly funded and many are overwhelmed by SDG reporting requirements.

The new approach should be supported by the coordinated efforts of development agencies to raise awareness about the guidelines and help countries implement them.

In turn, countries should make gender equality a top policy priority. If we succeed, women will be empowered to emerge from the shadows of their households with the right to own the homes, property and other assets they work so hard to build.

Kaushal Joshi is principal statistician at ADB’s Economic Research and Regional Cooperation Department

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