21 June 2009

Gendered access to customary land in East Timor

Pyone Myat Thu, Steffanie Scott Kimberly and P. Van Niel Published online: 14 August 2007 Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2007


Land tenure rights reflect the deeper structures of society, particularly gender distinctions in relation to land. Considering the structural differences between patrilineal and matrilineal customary tenure systems in East Timor are understudied, this paper explores men and women’s experiences in accessing land under such arrangements.

The comparative analysis of two patrilineal with one matrilineal land tenure systems in Ainaro and Manufahi districts suggests a significant degree of flexibility within both systems with respect to the norms of gendered inheritance. Therefore, the binary constructs of ‘patrilineal’ and ‘matrilineal’ societies are limiting. Both men and women in these communities may acquire land rights under different circumstances, mainly through negotiations with their parents or hamlet chief. Daughters in the patrilineal communities could inherit family land upon their parents’ death and sons in the matrilineal community could gain land by cultivating and maintaining unclaimed customary land.

Empirical evidence show that inheritance principally determines usufruct rights to land, but marriage exchange practices complicates a deeper understanding of traditional East Timorese land rights.

Gender Patrilineal Matrilineal


Land is essential in subsistence-type societies where agriculture is the mainstay in people’s livelihoods. Land tenure is defined as a ‘bundle of rights’ held by an individual in relation to land (Bruce 1998). They essentially represent relationships between people, and the responsibilities and restraints tied to them, whether legally or customarily (FAO 2002). Therefore, tenurial arrangements could be conceptualised as spatially representing social relations. The importance
of land rights is not so much the relationship between individuals and land, but a relationship between people with regards to land (Blomley 2005). The right of access to, control of, and the right to exclude others are central. However, land tenure systems have a larger effect on society than just who has access to land. They effectively define gender relationships within communities. So when discussing tenur...
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