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Women’s legal rights and gender gaps in property ownership

  • Blog Post Date 23 April, 2021
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Rahul Lahoti

Azim Premji University

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Hema Swaminathan

Asian Development Bank & Indian Institute of Management Bangalore

Amendments to succession laws have sought to address gender-based discrimination in property inheritance in India. Analysing Demographic and Health Survey data, collected in about 40 countries since 2010, this article confirms that women are less likely than men to own land and housing, with the gaps being larger for disadvantaged groups and rural areas. Further, it shows that countries with more gender-equal legal regimes are associated with higher property ownership by women. 

A landmark judgement on 11 August 2020 by the Supreme Court of India held that daughters would have equal birth rights in Hindu Undivided Family1 properties, irrespective of whether the father was alive or not on 9 September 2005, when the Hindu Succession Amendment Act (HSAA) came into force. This judgement comes almost 15 years after the initial amendment that removed discriminations against girls in allowing daughters coparcenary rights in ancestral property, similar to sons.

While the judgement is to be applauded, it is unclear whether the HSAA, or similar laws elsewhere, are really having an impact on addressing gender gaps in property ownership. Until recently, there have been no systematic data on gender gaps in property ownership in many developing countries that would enable proper documentation of these gaps. However, this has started to change over the last decade. In 2009, the Gender Asset Gap Project highlighted the feasibility of collecting individual-level data on property and other assets. The project collected individual-level asset data in Karnataka, India and Ecuador, Ghana. In 2010, the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) began collecting data on the ownership of land and housing for adult women and men, which now covers approximately 40 countries. Land (including agricultural and non-agricultural) and housing are both important assets for the poor in developing countries. These are the primary means of wealth accumulation in rural communities, with housing property growing in importance due to urbanisation. In recent research (Gaddis et al. 2020), we use DHS data (2010-2018) to explore gender gaps in the (self-reported) ownership of land and housing property among married couples, and the factors associated with these gaps. This is, to the best of our knowledge, the first global empirical assessment of gender gaps in property ownership in developing countries.

Men are more likely to own property than women

Figure 1 below shows the difference between women and men in land and housing ownership at the country level. We combine sole and joint ownership, that is, we do not differentiate between cases where women or men own property alone or jointly with someone else, typically their spouse. In all but one country (the Comoros), women are less likely than men to claim ownership over land and housing. Geographically, the largest gender gaps in property ownership are found in West and Central Africa, South Asia, Europe and Central Asia, and the Middle East and North Africa.

Women are more likely than men to report joint ownership and hence, gender gaps in property ownership are even stronger if we only consider sole ownership. In the case of India, however, this difference is not very pronounced: 66% (46%) of married men report owning housing (land) on their own, compared to 22% (17%) of married women, which amounts to a gender gap of 43 (29) percentage points. These gaps do not close much if we consider sole and joint ownership combined, with 79% (59%) of married men and 39% (30%) of married women reporting either sole or joint housing (land) ownership – implying a gender gap of to 40 (29) percentage points.

Figure 1. Gender gaps in land and housing ownership, among married couples

Notes: (i) See here for a list of country codes. (ii) A positive value indicates that more men than women own property. (iii) Differences are in terms of percentage points.

Within countries, gender gaps are most pronounced for disadvantaged groups

Figure 2 plots gender gaps in property ownership by country and wealth quintile2, using the DHS index of household wealth to rank households from the poorest to the richest quintile. To simplify matters, land and housing ownership is combined into a single indicator of property ownership. Gender gaps in sole and joint ownership of property are typically larger for the poorest than for the richest quintile, a pattern that holds even more strongly for sole ownership. A similar picture emerges when we compare rural and urban areas, with gender gaps in property ownership being larger in the former.

Figure 2. Gender gaps in property ownership among married couples, by country and wealth status

Countries with more gender-egalitarian legal regimes have higher property ownership by women

Finally, we investigate whether discriminatory laws and regulations could be a factor explaining the large gender gaps in property ownership documented above. This analysis draws on the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law (WBL) data, which has been widely used to document gender biases in counties’ legal systems (for example, Islam et al. 2019, Hyland et al. 2020). We link the WBL data to the DHS data on women’s and men’s property ownership to explore if gender gaps are associated with discriminatory laws and regulations.

We focus on four areas of legislation that we expect may have a negative association with women’s ability to own land or housing. The first area is legal recognition of non-monetary contributions to marital property. Since women are more likely than men to perform unpaid activities that benefit the household (for example, caring for children) they have fewer opportunities to take up paid work outside the home and to use the earnings to acquire property during the marriage. Legal recognition of non-monetary contributions, which is implicit in community property regimes3, is hence important for women as it grants them access to a share of marital property upon the dissolution of marriage. The second area is equal inheritance rights. This captures if the law provides for equal inheritance rights between female and male surviving spouses, and between female and male children. The third area is equal ownership rights to immovable property. This indicator picks up discrimination by gender not only in the legal ability to own property, but also in the legal treatment of spousal property. The fourth area is equal remuneration for work of equal value. Though not directly related to property rights, this indicator captures gender discrimination in pay, given the centrality of earnings for property acquisitions.

Our results show that countries with more gender-equal legal regimes are associated with higher property ownership by women. The relationship between legislation and women’s property ownership holds across rural and urban areas, and is stronger for housing than for land. There is further indication that equal rights to own property, and laws providing for the valuation of non-monetary contributions, may matter more for married women’s property ownership than inheritance rights and laws mandating equal remuneration for equal work.

Overall, our results suggest that reforms to establish a more gender-equitable legislative framework may be an important mechanism to increase women’s property ownership.

An earlier version of this post appeared on the World Bank’s Let’s Talk Development platform.

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  1. A Hindu Undivided Family comprises all individuals lineally descended from a common ancestor, as well as wives and daughters of the male descendants.
  2. A quintile measure ranks and divides the dataset into five equal parts such that, if values of wealth are listed in ascending order, the bottom quintile would refer to the bottom 20% values in terms of wealth.
  3. In general, community property regimes require that property owned before marriage by a spouse, including gifts and inheritances received during marriage, constitute that spouse's separate property in case of divorce. Other property acquired during marriage constitutes ‘community property’ and is divided between spouses in case of divorce.

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