International Women’s Day: Women’s rights to own property
Both in the UK and abroad, property ownership is a crucial right that has bigger implications than you might think
Last updated on
Jun 1, 2022 10:50
Habito’s mission is to help people find home. We recognise that the legal right to property ownership hasn’t always existed for women in the UK, and continues to be denied to many women internationally. This International Women’s Day let’s reflect on the history, and consider the future, of women’s rights to property.
From the 12th Century until the end of the 19th Century, married women weren’t considered separate legal entities from their husbands thanks to something called coverture.
This meant that once they were married, women couldn’t do things like own property, sue in court, or make a will. (These financial and legal limitations didn’t apply to widows and single women in the same way.)
The Married Women’s Property Act was passed in 1870. This allowed wages earned by a woman, as well as any gifts or inheritance she received after marriage, to be treated as her own individual property rather than her husband's by default.
But the law was full of loopholes. For example, it didn’t apply to property she owned before marriage. This meant that once a woman got married, her husband took full control over the assets she’d owned prior.
In 1882, after more brave and tireless campaigning, this law was extended to allow married women to keep control of any property they owned before entering the marriage.
After the Sex Discrimination Act was passed in 1975, banks - as well as employers and other institutions - were legally required to treat women and men equally.
From this point, a woman could open a bank account in her own name and apply for a mortgage without facing discrimination, in theory. In reality, it wasn’t until the late 70s when the practice of demanding a male guarantor on a woman’s mortgage application died out in the UK.
Things are better, but women still face obstacles - like the gender pay gap - when trying to get on the housing ladder.
Here at Habito, we’ve seen the number of mortgage applications with female primary (or sole) applicants increase from 29% in 2017, to 33% in 2021. Not a huge increase, but there has only been 2.8 per cent growth in female mortgage holders over the past decade.
That’s probably because women need an average of twelve times their annual salary to be able to buy a home in England, while men need just over eight times.
In more than 30 countries, women and girls do not have the same rights to own and inherit land as men and boys. And in dozens of other countries, despite laws stating that they can, customs undermine these rights entirely.
Research by Landesa in 2016 highlights the reasons why land ownership for women is vital:
The Stand For Her Land Campaign is working on bridging the gap between the standards that are in place to protect women’s rights to land, and the reality.
“Land is the foundation for shelter, livelihood, and climate resilience. Land is fundamental for survival… We cannot achieve gender equality without women’s equal rights to and control over the world’s most elemental resources: land and property. Women’s land rights are fundamental human rights.”
Read more about their brilliant work here.
Owning property isn’t just a financial milestone - finding home for women means health, savings, safety and education for their children. There’s work to do to ensure that all women have equal access and the opportunity to build equity in the same way as men.
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