Property is widely recognized as an important resource for empowering women. Many development policies worldwide therefore emphasize the need for women to acquire property, especially in the form of physical assets such as land and livestock, but also cash. Numerous studies, mostly based on household surveys (Carter & Barrett 2006; Meinzen-Dick et al 2011; Quisumbing et al 2015; Johnson et al 2016), have shown that enhancing women’s ownership of and control over physical assets improves their bargaining power within the household, makes them more economically autonomous and independent, and increases their control over income generated by the assets.  However, the relationship between property (assets) and women’s empowerment is more complex than assumed in these studies and policies because of the overlapping and dynamic nature of property rights and the intersection of gender with other identities such as ethnicity, caste, class and social location of women within a household (“intersectionality”).

Norms and understandings of what constitutes property, rights and ‘ownership’ vary across contexts, and perspectives may even differ within a household.  Moreover, intersectionality means that women with different identities experience different property rights norms that help or hinder them from acquiring, maintaining, and benefiting from various types of assets and using property to empower themselves. Depending on a woman’s social and economic situation, household or joint property may offer benefits and even have certain advantages over individual property.

In this paper, we explore how different understandings and norms around property and property rights affect the empowerment of women of different intersecting identities. Going beyond formal ownership of property, we look at property rights rules and norms by social location, ethnicity, household structure, and class, including how they are established and negotiated along the life cycle. We examine patterns in how individuals access, control, and use individual and joint assets under these different property right regimes. Finally, the paper assesses how quantitative research methods run the risk of misinterpreting asset and empowerment data if nuance around the concepts of property rights and intersectionality is not incorporated.

The paper draws on qualitative (ethnographic) and quantitative (household survey) research conducted for the “Evaluation of the Welfare Impacts of a Livestock Transfer Program in Nepal.” Ethnographic study combining focus group discussions, semi-structured interviews, and life-histories were conducted in four sites for a period of 60 days each, focusing on topics of empowerment, social capital, property rights, migration, and in one site, the impact of Heifer’s livestock project on women’s empowerment. This paper is primarily based on the ethnographic study conducted in 2015 as well as a supplemental study to be conducted in March 2017.


Carter, M.R. and Barrett, C.B. 2006. The economics of poverty traps and persistent poverty: An asset-based approachThe Journal of Development Studies, 42(2), pp.178-199.

Johnson, N. L., Kovarik, C., Meinzen-Dick, R., Njuki, J. and Quisumbing, A. 2016. Gender, Assets, and Agricultural Development: Lessons from Eight Projects. World Development.

Meinzen-Dick, R. et al. 2011. Gender, Assets, and Agricultural Development Programs: A Conceptual Framework. CAPRi Working Paper No. 99. International Food Policy Research Institute: Washington, DC.

Quisumbing, A.R., Rubin, D., Manfre, C., Waithanji, E., van den Bold, M., Olney, D., Johnson, N., et al. 2015. Gender, assets, and market-oriented agriculture: learning from high-value crop and livestock projects in Africa and Asia. Agriculture and Human Values.