Insights and Analysis

Emerging Trends in Property Rights for Vulnerable Populations in Asia

September 10, 2014

By Christina Williams

Although they don’t often make international headlines, land disputes and conflict over property rights regularly make national coverage across Asia. On August 30, over 1,000 farmers assembled in Myanmar to protest ongoing land grabs. Last month in Sri Lanka, a public outcry over forced evictions in urban areas follows a trend that has affected thousands since 2010. Local media recently reported on how land acquisitions in Cambodia continue to tear families apart, as widowed mothers are sending young children away as they struggle to meet basic needs such as food and shelter.

Estimates predict that by 2030, the youth population in Asia will reach 460 million and urbanization will increase from 39.9 percent to 54.5 percent. As a consequence of such growth, many countries are already unable to cope with the limited supply of land and resources in urban areas such as in Nepal's capital, Kathmandu. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

Estimates predict that by 2030, the youth population in Asia will reach 460 million and urbanization will increase from 39.9 percent to 54.5 percent. As a consequence of such growth, many countries are already unable to cope with the limited supply of land and resources in urban areas such as in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

In Asia and elsewhere, it’s common knowledge that ensuring secure land tenure and property rights can help reduce poverty for vulnerable populations. New research conducted by The Asia Foundation, which will be soon be released in a report, examines three emerging areas where vulnerable populations in Asia are impacted by insecure land tenure: displaced women in conflict and post-conflict countries, urban land tenure for youth, and innovative technologies improving land tenure for vulnerable populations. The report builds on research conducted by leading institutions as well as the Foundation’s own field research. Below are highlights from preliminary research:


United Nations’ estimates predict that by 2030, the youth population in Asia will reach 460 million and urbanization will increase from 39.9 percent to 54.5 percent. As a consequence of such growth, many countries are already unable to cope with the limited supply of land and resources in urban areas. Limited employment opportunities in rural areas are creating unprecedented levels of youth drain and relocation to urban environments in countries like Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Nepal. One in three Cambodians are between the ages of 15-29 and a quarter of the population has migrated internally. Local customs in some cases prohibit women from inheriting or acquiring land are also resulting in increased migration patterns of young women particularly in South Asia. In the Philippines and Indonesia, more than 60 percent of migrants are women.

In urban areas, youth in informal settlements or slums often struggle to balance a range of concerns including safety, inadequate incomes, and insecure land tenure. Youth are often ignored in urban consultations and are directly impacted by legal barriers that can hinder their property rights. Perhaps surprisingly, UN Habitat cited that the biggest challenge for youth in securing land tenure in urban areas is not land scarcity, but social attitudes. Gang violence and sexual violence can also be influenced by insecure land tenure. A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) report found that many vulnerable youth in Timor-Leste were joining gangs and becoming involved in disputes that were overwhelmingly related to land. DFAT reported that 6,000 homes were destroyed by gangs in 2006, with much of the conflict reportedly over land issues. This was often a result of a complicated and unclear land tenure system left by the Portuguese and Indonesia.

Displaced Women

In conflict and post-conflict Asian countries, our research shows that displaced women are more prone to challenges that hinder their ability to secure housing, land, and property rights. Six main challenges that impact vulnerable and displaced women in fragile and transitioning areas are: social, cultural, and family norms; customary justice; formal justice systems; documentation; head of household policies; and sexual violence.

In Afghanistan, a new United State Institute of Peace (USIP) report found that local customs often impact a woman’s decision to seek legal aid because some communities were suspicious of external entities, including NGOs and the government who provide these services. In Sri Lanka, one of the biggest challenges for displaced women has been the lack of documentation which was lost during the decades long civil war. According to Nimmi Gowrinathan, a gender expert with the United Nations Development Program, “A lot of people lost birth certificates, death certificates, and marriage certificates. When it came to reclaiming land, or looking for someone who is missing, or even proving they had a family member in the hospital, that became very difficult for women in particular to prove, without access to those documents.”

Programs that offer legal aid support for displaced and female-headed households must also consider the special vulnerabilities women face in securing and maintaining ownership of land. While efforts are increasing to ensure female-headed households are considered when securing land rights, the discussion around heads of households can also be limiting for displaced women. According to Donny Meertens, an expert on gender and property rights and an associate professor at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, often when governments design gender-sensitive policies around land rights, these are usually translated into priorities for female-headed households. The policy to make land policies gender-neutral can consequently exclude displaced women who are married or on their own.

Innovations in Technology

Across Asia, countries are juggling competing interests in land and natural resources from foreign investors and local communities. The challenge to maintaining secure land tenure for vulnerable populations is compounded by vague legal frameworks, an inability to access venues that resolve land disputes, and poor enforcement mechanisms. In light of these concerns, donors and NGOs have begun incorporating technology solutions such as open data collection, GIS mapping, and mobile applications to strengthen land tenure systems and make the process more transparent.

Similar to the concept of mobile courts, Indonesia has pioneered an initiative to create mobile land offices that travel to marginalized communities across the country. Indonesia’s National Land Agency developed the People’s Land Titling Service (LARASITA) that enables a van equipped with laptops to provide property services to rural areas of the country. LARASITA more recently also integrated an SMS service to enable users to send questions to land administrators.

While traditionally land administration mechanisms by the state often require accredited surveyors to adjudicate, demarcate, and survey land boundaries, more recent efforts have empowered communities to collect and publish information about their property. For example, in Laos, a nationwide inventory of land concessions originally developed by the Lao National Land Management Authority and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) will be maintained through crowdsourcing.

Secure land tenure and property rights are key factors that can help communities transition out of poverty. Although often overlooked, property rights for displaced women and urban youth can shape the development and success of many of the country’s most marginalized populations. Technological advancements will also play a greater role in how vulnerable populations access and secure property. Collectively, these emerging areas are critical for law and justice practitioners to understand, and not doing so, risks further impoverishing these communities for generations to come.

Christina Williams is a junior associate with The Asia Foundation’s Governance and Law Program based in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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