Harmful gender norms are preventing vulnerable people access their right to property

As part of the guest lecture series IHS hosts yearly, Frances Birungi-Odong delivered her lecture ‘Gender norms and property rights: transforming inequitable gender norms’. Ms Birungi-Odong is a feminist and passionate gender and human rights expert. She has 18 years professional experience with designing and implementing programmes to accelerate progress towards advancing gender justice through promoting women’s and girl’s rights.

She is the Director of Programmes for Uganda Community Based Associated for Women and Children’s Welfare (UCOBAC) a non-partisan NGO dedicated to improving the socio-economic welfare of vulnerable women and children in Uganda. Ms Birungi-Odong works with grassroots communities to mobilise local resources, strengthen community development practices and transform public policies. Some of the programmes she has designed and implemented explore issues like land and property rights, sexual and reproductive health rights, and the right to participation in governance and decision making processes.

The lecture aimed to help participants understand the link between gender norms and property rights as critical for transforming discriminatory social and gender norms. It focused on understanding how gender norms regarding property rights can be reshaped to ensure equitable access and ownership.

Ms Birungi-Odong began the lecture with a brief historical background of the emergence of property rights, with a focus on those implemented by the UN. She discussed the seminal CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) international bill of 1979, which provided the basis for ensuring equal access to and opportunities in political and public life. Additionally, she emphasised the importance of regional and country level frameworks and legislative guidelines that can promote property rights.

Property rights are the sovereign rights to own land and/or property. They are crucial for advancing sustainable development as they affect livelihood, food security, health and wellbeing, education and can help overcome poverty. Therefore, when there is an imbalance in access to property or a person’s property rights are not afforded to them, it can cause problems in all areas of their life and the wider community.

After this initial introduction and a brief explanation of gender, gender norms and inequality, Ms Birungi-Odong posed a question to the participants: ‘what are attitudes like in your own society towards women and men?’ The session split into two Zoom breakout rooms to discuss. Traditional binary gender roles of masculinity and femininity were explored, as well as different positions within the family unit and what this means for different genders.

The groups then joined again in the plenary session and shared their thoughts. There was an almost unanimous agreement that gender roles are harmful for men and women, with pressure on men to be the breadwinners for their family and domestic pressures on women with childcare and other tasks in the home across many different cultures.

After this fruitful discussion, Ms Birungi-Odong turned to practical measures that can be used to help advance an equitable approach to property rights, outlining several frameworks and concepts that break down harmful gender norms. These included the ‘problem tree analysis’ where designers and policy makers are encouraged to look for the root cause of social norms. By using the imagery of the tree trunk, leaves, and roots, participants were able to see the connection between respective core problems, effects and their important root causes (the very roots of the tree).

Another framework Ms Birungi-Odong outlined was social cognitive theory. This concept examines how our behaviour is influenced by our environment, and therefore that it is important to recognise our patterns in social behaviours. This helps break down automatic gender stereotypes if we recognise they are unfounded by fact.

These frameworks, amongst others, were offered as equitable solutions to both explain and help deconstruct gender norms that harm access to property rights. Ms Birungi-Odong emphasised the importance of property rights in affording women security and status in society, as we all have a human right to property and protection against discrimination. The gap that often widens between policy, law and practice lies in these harmful gender norms. Therefore, to help women gain their rightful access to property, policy and planning needs to combat this by getting to the root cause of the issue.