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Pakistan – fighting for land rights for the poor

Absence of land ownership, the lack of tenure and residential security for tenant and landless farmers is a major cause of rural poverty in Pakistan.

While more than 60% of the population lives in rural areas, less than half of all rural households own agricultural land. And vast swathes of agricultural land are owned by a small percentage of wealthy landowners.

Oxfam GB is working with partners in some of the poorest regions in Pakistan, including Sindh, to campaign for land rights for the rural poor, especially women.


“The women peasants of Sindh have awakened – and now they will be the landladies; the owners of the land” (slogan sung by women at events organized by Oxfam’s partner, Participatory Development Initiatives, PDI)

women waiting at kutchari

They came by bus and by truck. Some, like Hajiani, even walked part of the way barefoot, for more than an hour, to a packed centre in Gora Bari town, Thatta district, in Pakistan’s Sindh province, where hundreds of women had gathered.

women arriving at kutchari/pdi

They were here to hand in their applications to formally claim state land which was being reallocated to some of the province’s poorest women in a landmark land distribution programme aimed at helping some of the most marginalized and poorest people. Many would hear the same day if they’d been successful.

PDI staff helping women to register land applications

Hajiani, who doesn’t know her age, shyly held out her thumb, which was now covered in blue ink, to show that she had registered her papers and was waiting to see if she would be among those formally awarded land for the first time.

Hajiani registers for land

“We have nothing. We’ve got by from fishing; but stocks are reduced these days. It is hard to make any good livelihood”, she told me. “I have come today to seek land.

“If we get our own land, we can feed our family and earn more money. Sometimes, we have enough to eat; but often, its not enough”.

Pakistan did not carry out essential land reforms soon after it gained independence. As a result, critics say, Pakistan’s agricultural and rural sectors are characterized by highly feudal relationships which keep many in abject poverty, included bonded labour. It is estimated that more than 60% of farmers in Sindh are landless, while vast tracts of farmland are still owned by a small wealthy elites who wield huge political and social influence.

Sindh’s land distribution programme is seen as a bold step forward: for the first time in Pakistan as well as South Asia, state land is being specifically distributed to landless women peasants in an attempt to begin reducing poverty and bring about much wider social changes in rural areas.

When I visited the packed kutchari, or open hearing, it was bustling with activity. Many women and their families had traveled in vans organized by Participatory Development Initiatives, PDI, a local partner supported by Oxfam, to ensure as many deserving women as possible had the chance to register for land. PDI staff were also on-hand to help those unable to read and write to fill out land application forms; and for weeks earlier, had carried out awareness campaigns about the land distribution programme, including using local radio broadcasts, to ensure as many deserving people as possible could benefit from the scheme.

“It’s very important for me to get land”, said mother of four, Janat, who currently farms on four-acres of land belonging to her landlord. Her family only receive a quarter of the crops they cultivate; while the landlord takes the rest.

“We want land of our own to pass onto our children; to have our own house and not live with threats or the fear of having to move. A landlord can ask us to leave at any time” she explained.


Another lady, Sakina, who traveled with her six year old son, chipped in. “Security is a priority for us. If we own land, we will have a safe house; no corrupt people can snatch our crops from us….There are always threats from influential people who can take the land for us.”


Around 43,000 acres of state-owned land has already been distributed in the first phase of the programme, which had prioritised women landless peasants. But civic groups like PDI had pointed out a number of serious flaws in the scheme. Much of the land allocated proved uncultivable – because it was affected by salinity; waterlogged, unleveled or had multiple ownership claims – which led to protracted legal battles. PDI has been helping many women with legal support to fight their cases through the courts, to face the challenges lodged by richer, more powerful landowners.

gathering to register for land

The second phase of distribution is now solely targeting landless women and hopes to iron out many of the flaws in the original process, as well as offering women longer-term packages of agricultural support including providing seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and technical help.

Faisal Ahmed Uqaili, co-ordinator of Sindh government’s Land Distribution Programme, acknowledges that about 50% of the original land allocated had proved problematic. But he says lessons have been learnt and that around 80% of cases have been settled. He said officials were also under strict orders to ensure greater transparency, to stop nepotism and corruption in the second phase of the distribution process. There had been cases reported of officials trying to sell application papers to the women, or grant land to people favoured by influential political leaders.

“You need to say the glass is half full instead of half-empty”, he told me. “When you meet these success stories, women are now making a livelihood for their husbands and families. There is a marked difference.

“If change is coming in the life of the people for this allotted land and for a fairly large percentage of people, then it’s the start of success.”

Mother-of-seven, Beebul Hassan’s face lights up as she holds up a slip of paper with a signature showing she has been successful in her application. She is now the proud owner of four acres of land.

“I still don’t believe I am a winner here”, she said. “I can’t help making plans about how I will now use my land”. She says she wants to start growing wheat, chillies, tomatoes and vegetables; and for the very first time, a family home on land that she now can call her own.


And hear the voice of one woman, Suhagan, who faced a long legal battle to claim the land she was awarded by the Sindh government, as part of its land distribution programme.



When 58 year old mother of seven, Suhagan, was awarded eight acres of land more than a year ago as part of a new landmark initiative by Pakistan’s Sindh provincial government, she thought her luck had changed.


Suhagan was one of thousands of women targeted by the authorities in a programme aimed at empowering some of the poorest labourers in Sindh. The authorities had earmarked over 200,000 acres of land it owned and planned to redistribute it. For the first time in Pakistan’s history, poor landless women would be the key beneficiaries.

It is estimated more than 60% of the rural population in Sindh are landless.

Suhagan’s family owned no land and scraped by as day labourers; often struggling to make ends meet.

But her happiness was short-lived. One month after she learnt she had been allocated land in Mohammad Khan Jatt village, in Thatta district, a counter-claim was submitted by a rich landowner.

“I was very angry when the land was claimed by another person. It was my rightful land! It was very painful to me”, said Suhagan as she recounted her long legal battle for recognition.

“Land is very important for my children; our family needs land. Life is very miserable if you have no land. I have so many children; and it is very hard to feed them and send them to school if you don’t have land”.

Suhagan’s case is not unique. But she was one of the lucky ones. Thanks to help from PDI (Participatory Development Initiatives), a local organization supported by Oxfam, Suhagan received legal help to fight her case. The ordeal lasted more than a year. And during that time she had to sell two precious cows to pay for some of her travel costs to attend legal hearings.

“Now we are landlords. We are now owners of the land. We have our own house; we will have enough food to eat and we will feel proud”, she said smiling, as we chatted in her one-roomed mud hut.

As she spoke, two other women in the room nodded their heads in approval. Porhi and Rahima, both from the same village, were also awarded land. Yet they’re going through similar legal battles.

Rahima (left) and Porhi (right)

They talk about rich “influential” landlords who were trying to prevent them from claiming the small plots of land.

“The government has given us this land and its ours. We will fight to keep it. Other people with a lot of land are threatening us and trying to snatch our land from us..but its ours!”, said Porhi defiantly.

With legal support from PDI she’s confident that they, too, will win their case.

It’s a David and Goliath battle. But, unfortunately, the problem doesn’t necessarily stop in the courts.

Suhagan leads me nearby to the farmland that she now owns. Its caked dry and wind whips the sandy soil into our eyes. Its hard to believe much will grow in what seems to be to be an unforgiving landscape.

She’s planning to plant rice. But a tractor she hired to plough the land stands idle. Its two front tyres punctured and deflated. I’m told it was the work of people who still dispute the court ruling.

As we talk, a man arrives – a relative of the landowner who fought the original land allocation. He shouts angrily, saying the land should be his.
Suhagan and her family remain defiant.

They know the land is rightfully theirs. They’ve stood their ground, raised their voices and challenged others who have sought to wield power and influence over them before. They will do so again.

Suhagan points to her land


For twenty years, Asyat and her husband were bonded labourers: forced to work for a landowner in order to pay their debts.

They knew little of their rights and were too scared to demand them. At one point, her husband owed 50,000 rupees (about $500) to the landlord whose fields they farmed and whose crops they had to split with him. Her husband had been forced to borrow money from the land owner to pay for family funerals and his second marriage.

“The landlord was afraid we would try to escape somewhere to avoid paying the debt, so he handcuffed my husband’s hands in the evenings. He kept him in the house just like an animal in a cage, for about six months”, Asyat told me, when I met her and a group of other women, mostly former bonded labourers, at Mir Tharo Khan village, in Mirpur Khas district, Sindh province, in Pakistan.


While bonded labour is illegal in Pakistan, it is still practiced in many parts of the country, including Sindh’s agricultural sector.

Oxfam and its local partner, BHS (Bhandar Hari Sangat), have been working in Mirpur Khas and five other districts to try to improve the lives of some of the most marginalized in Pakistan: poor landless farmers and small holders, especially women.

In Mir Tharo Khan village, about fifty women have been helped out of bonded labour. Education, awareness, and advocacy campaigns have helped the women to understand their basic rights: to demand transparent accounts are provided by their their landlords who have often cooked the books to keep the workers under their control and remain in debt.

Oxfam has been working to promote health and hygiene in the families as well as encouraging communities to send their children to school – both boys and girls. It has also helped landless labourers organize themselves into independentally-run and financed self-help networks (Sindh Hari Porhiat Councils) where they discuss common problems, such as tenancy and labour issues.

“Education is the third eye of the people”, Asyat told me proudly, explaining that she and other women now act as volunteers, traveling to neighbouring villages to explain how their lives have changed.

Asyat admits that the changes in her and her community have been profound. While life is still a daily struggle, she says she and her family are proud to be free from debt. Before, she said, her face lighting up as she spoke, she was like a mouse, too timid to question anything from the authorities; now she has gained in confidence. She’s articulate and confident.

“Now we are organized, we have become like lions!” she said. “My message is for men and women to be aware, to unite in organisations so they can demand their rights …to come together to learn from each other and work to improve their situation.”

She then told me a story to illustrate her point. She and other landless farmers who had joined into a self-help network were furious to discover that government-subsidised wheat that had been earmarked for poor families during Ramadan was not being distributed to the areas they’d been intended for.

“We gathered 300 women, went on strike and blocked the road. We insisted the government distribute the wheat through the women. That was our first success! We were like lions!”

The women laughed. Daily life is still a struggle. But now know their basic rights. And they’re determined that their voices will not go unheard.


(English Version)
(urdu version)

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