West African project helps women claim rights and farmland

Mariama Sonko’s voice echoed in the circle of 40 women farmers sitting in the shade of a cashew tree. They scribbled notes, brows furrowed in concentration as their lecture was punctuated by the thud of falling fruit.

This sleepy town in Senegal is the headquarters of We Are the Solution, a 115,000-strong West African rural women’s rights movement. Sonko, its president, is training female farmers from cultures where women are often excluded from ownership of the land they work so closely with.

Across Senegal, women farmers make up 70% of the agricultural workforce and produce 80% of crops, but they have little access to land, education and finance compared to men, according to the United Nations.

“We work from dawn to dusk, but with everything we do, what do we get out of it?” —Sonko asked.

She believes that when rural women are given land, responsibilities and resources, it has a ripple effect in communities. Her movement is training women farmers who traditionally do not have access to education, explaining their rights and funding women-led agricultural projects.

Throughout West Africa, women generally do not own land because they are expected to leave the community when they marry. But when they move into their husbands’ houses, they are not given land because they are not related by blood.

Sonko grew up watching his mother struggle after his father’s death, with young children to support.

“If I had land, I could have supported us,” he recalled, his normally booming voice now tender. Instead, Sonko had to marry young, abandon his studies and leave her ancestral home.

After moving to her husband’s town at age 19, Sonko and several other women convinced a landowner to rent them a small plot of land in exchange for part of his harvest. They planted fruit trees and started a garden. Five years later, when the trees were full of papayas and grapefruits, the owner uprooted them.

‘Women farmers are invisible’: West African project helps them reclaim their rights and land. #WomenFarmers #WeAreTheSolution #WestAfrica

The experience marked Sonko.

“This made me fight so that women can have the space to thrive and manage their rights,” she said. When she later got a job at a women’s charity funded by Catholic Relief Services, coordinating microcredit for rural women, that work began.

“Women farmers are invisible,” said Laure Tall, research director at the Agricultural and Rural Perspectives Initiative, a rural Senegalese think tank. This is despite the fact that women work on farms between two and four hours more than men on a typical day.

But when women earn money, they reinvest it in their community, in the health and education of their children, Tall said. Men spend some on household expenses, but can choose to spend the rest however they want. Sonko listed common examples such as finding a new wife, drinking, and buying fertilizers and pesticides for crops that make money instead of providing food.

With the support of her husband, who died in 1997, Sonko decided to invest in other women. Her training center now employs more than 20 people, with the support of small philanthropic organizations such as the Agroecology Fund and the CLIMA Fund.

In a recent week, Sonko and her team trained more than 100 women from three countries, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau and the Gambia, in agroforestry (growing trees and crops together as a protective measure against extreme weather conditions) and microgardening, growing food in small spaces where there is little access to land.

One participant, Binta Diatta, said Somos la Solution bought irrigation equipment, seeds and fences (a $4,000 investment) and helped women in her city access land for a garden, one of more than 50 funded by the organization.

When Diatta started earning money, he said, he spent it on food, clothing and his children’s education. Her efforts were noticed.

“The following season, all the men accompanied us to the orchard because they considered it valuable,” he said, remembering how they came simply to witness it.

Now another challenge has emerged that affects both women and men: climate change.

In Senegal and the surrounding region, temperatures are rising 50% more than the global average, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the United Nations Environment Program says rainfall could decrease by 38% in the coming decades.

Where Sonko lives, the rainy season has become shorter and less predictable. Salt water is encroaching on their rice fields bordering the tidal estuary and mangroves due to rising sea levels. In some cases, yield losses are so severe that farmers abandon their rice fields.

But adapting to a warming planet has proven to be a strength for women, as they adopt climate innovations much faster than men, said Ena Derenoncourt, investment specialist for women-led agricultural projects at the agricultural research agency AICCRA.

“They have no choice because they are the most vulnerable and affected by climate change,” Derenoncourt said. “They are the most motivated to find solutions.”

On a recent day, Sonko brought together 30 leading women rice farmers to document hundreds of local rice varieties. She called out the names of the rice (some hundreds of years old, named after prominent female farmers, passed down from generation to generation) and the women echoed what they call it in their villages.

This preservation of indigenous rice varieties is not only key to adapting to climate change but also to emphasize the status of women as traditional guardians of seeds.

“The seeds are totally feminine and bring value to the women in their communities,” Sonko said. “That’s why we work with them, to give them more confidence and responsibility in agriculture.”

Knowledge of hundreds of seeds and how they respond to different growing conditions has been vital in giving women a more influential role in communities.

Sonko claimed to have a seed for every condition, including those that are too rainy, too dry, and even those that are more salt-resistant for mangroves.

Last year, he produced 2 tons of rice on his half-hectare plot without any of the pesticides or synthetic fertilizers that are heavily subsidized in Senegal. The yield was more than double that of plots with full chemical use in a 2017 Food and Agriculture Organization project in the same region.

“Our seeds are resilient,” Sonko said, examining clay pots filled with rice designed to preserve the seeds for decades. “Conventional seeds do not resist climate change and are very demanding. They need fertilizers and pesticides.”

The cultural intimacy between women farmers, their seeds and the land means they are more likely to avoid chemicals that damage the soil, said Charles Katy, an indigenous wisdom expert in Senegal who is helping to document Sonko rice varieties.

He highlighted the organic fertilizer that Sonko made from manure and the biopesticides made with ginger, garlic and chili.

One of Sonko’s apprentices, Sounkarou Kébé, told of her experiments against parasites in her tomato patch. Instead of using manufactured insecticides, she attempted to use the bark of a tree traditionally used in the Casamance region of Senegal to treat intestinal problems in humans caused by parasites.

A week later, all the illness was gone, Kébé said.

As dusk approached at the training center, insects buzzed in the background and Sonko prepared for another training session. “There’s too much demand,” she said. He is now trying to establish another seven agricultural centers in southern Senegal.

Looking toward the circle of women studying in the dim light, she said, “My great struggle in the movement is to make humanity understand the importance of women.”

The Associated Press receives financial support for global health and development coverage in Africa from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Trust. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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