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The Americas 60.4 (2004) 644-645

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Empowering Women: Land and Property Rights in Latin America. By Carmen Diana Deere and Magdalena León. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001. Pp. xxv, 486. Tables. Appendix. Notes. References. Index. $55.00 cloth; $24.95 paper.

This book is a must-read for social scientists, social activists, and members of the development and human rights policy and practice communities in the Americas. The breadth and depth of both documentation and analysis, together with compelling theoretical innovation, make this book a model for studies seeking to understand the causes and consequences of gender (and, more broadly, distributional) inequality, and pathways of corrective engagement involving civil society, states, international institutions, and markets. The authors' aim is to examine "the disjuncture in Latin America between men's and women's formal equality before the law and the achievement of real equality between them, an issue particularly well illuminated by the gap between women's property rights and their actual ownership of property" (p. 1). Their work flawlessly documents both this disjuncture and its roots in "male preference in inheritance, male privilege in marriage, male bias in state programs of land distribution, and gender inequality in the land market" and where "land is owned or held collectively by indigenous and/or peasant communities" (p. 2). The authors also successfully realize their aims to reveal the "constitutive elements of economic empowerment and . . . the transformative potential of women's struggle for asset ownership" (p. 31), and to document processes through which women have successfully pressed claims to land in varying contexts.

Deere and León trace the processes of civil code reform, agrarian reform and code revision under neo-liberalism, the rise of women's and indigenous movements during the neo-liberal ascendancy, and how what they label "the triangle of empowerment" (strategic alliances formed between women in government, politics, and rural and urban women's movements) contributed to more gender-egalitarian outcomes during the neo-liberal "counter-reforms." They also examine both structural and cultural bases for male bias in inheritance practice and land markets. Their analysis is based on a comprehensive, historically rich compilation of data from twelve countries. The book's informational base includes civil and agrarian legal frameworks, agricultural census data, national and sub-national quantitative studies, ethnographies, and the authors' extensive interviews and workshops with a wide range of stakeholders in the countries examined. [End Page 644]

The authors' nuanced treatment of structural factors, gender and family ideologies, ethnicity, and political process effectively accounts for differential outcomes in women's ownership and control of property among nations and constituencies. Key findings include the essential roles of legal mandates, effective state institutional mechanisms, and "perpetual vigilance" by activists in both government and civil society. This applies to the struggle for equitable treatment of women in marital and consensual unions, and for single female household heads during the allocative and formal titling projects under neo-liberalism. One of the components of economic empowerment Deere and León identify is joint titling to married and consensual-union couples, which confers fewer benefits than individual titling to women. They argue, however, that joint titling provides a significant improvement over recognizing only household heads (generally male) and, since it is widely viewed as less socially divisive than individual allocations/titles to marital partners, is more likely to be instituted. They demonstrate that joint titling significantly increased women's ownership of land in countries where women successfully pressed for mandates, mechanisms, and enforcement. Finding that women generally have been unable to achieve egalitarian control of land within indigenous and campesino forms of collective ownership, Deere and León offer a sensitive discussion of the tensions between collective and individual rights, and among women activists across classes and ethnicities, that encourages a more inclusive discourse.

Ultimately, the work provides a formidable body of empirical evidence, accessible and instructive analysis, and a shaping vision that reflects both uncompromising ideals of equality and equity and a realistic understanding of political and social processes. Thus the authors achieve their aim to "join and...


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