Land, ladies, and the law: a case study on women's land rights and welfare in Southeast Asia in the nineteenth century†

Thanyaporn Chankrajang, Jessica Vechbanyongratana
Published Online:
04 Aug 2020

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Abstract This study evaluates women's de jure and de facto land rights and their implications for household welfare in nineteenth‐century Bangkok. Women constituted a significant share of agricultural landowners holding government‐issued land deeds in central Siam (now Thailand)—a pattern that stands in contrast to both historical and contemporary developing economy contexts where the structure of land rights often favours men. The findings show, through both direct and indirect evidence, that women's de jure rights were upheld in practice. Women made significantly more agricultural investments than male or mixed‐gender owners, which supports the assertion that women perceived their land rights as secure under Siam's traditional usufruct land rights system. An assessment of land‐related court cases directly supports our claim, showing that women in Siam had access to legal representation and were protected when their land rights were challenged by investors and local elites in the context of high demand for both agricultural and urban land. Such secure land rights helped preserve women's livelihoods as agriculturists and household well‐being. We estimate that the median female‐owned orchard could support 10 adults annually, achieving a standard of living comparable to unskilled labourer households in Beijing and Milan during the same period.

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