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Senegal: the land belongs to those who work it

Fatou Guèye.
After a quarter century of armed conflict, and a socio-economic fabric reduced to shreds, women in Casamance, Senegal, are winning the right to access land and rebuild peace, says Fatou Guèye

Ziguinchor is a region in Casamance in the south of Senegal that is separated from the rest of the country by Gambia. Since 1982 it has been the site of a conflict between the MFCD (Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance) and the Senegalese state. On one side we have the MFCD, calling for independence; on the other the Senegalese State, committed to territorial integrity. This conflict has not spared the rural community of Enampor.

The year 2000 marked a particularly intense period of fighting in the area, during which the army arrested individuals suspected of belonging to the MFDC, underground forces carried out kidnaps and hold-ups and villages were besieged. Faced with this unrest, women alone took action, leading spontaneous marches from their village to the governing bodies in the town of Ziguinchor. From this moment on women here have remained convinced of two things: that their actions will have an important impact on the conflict’s final resolution and, above all, that they will shape their area’s development in a way that is both just and sustainable.

Confident that rural women’s leadership is a catalyst for long-term economic justice, and capable of fostering peace and equity between the sexes at a local, national and sub-regional level, at USOFORAL we are training women in action research and building women’s organizations and grass-roots federations in Casamance.

Land ownership was a key factor in the outbreak of the conflict in Casamance and it continues to fuel the conflict to this day. Despite the central role that women have always played in the local economy they do not own land themselves. Under a new regional development programme, women in Enampor were supposed to gain access to rice terrace land in the valleys. However today this land has been salinized and suffers from persistent drought, making yield extremely poor. Against this backdrop, women have understood that if they want to safeguard their family’s survival they must invest their energy in revenue-generating activities, such as planting fruit trees. Such activities nevertheless require access to flat plateau land, land which is used to farm palm wine or cash crops and remains, to date, an exclusively male domain.

Seeing their responsibilities grow as heads of households and arriving at a new found autonomy, either because their husbands have died, migrated, or simply given up the fight, women decided to open debate with a view to improving their right to own land. It was their hope that such a right would, in turn, help to elevate their social standing. The Community of Enampor’s Women’s Group, which represents 1,200 women, was quick to raise the issue of poor land access as soon as the WAGIC programme (West African Gender Inclusive Citizenship) was launched in their area.

The problem certainly lacks a simple solution. Women’s land access is an issue that risks throwing a whole traditional system which their ancestors honoured into disarray. We are talking about a society that continues to foster a firm belief in religious and superstitious ‘fétiche’, particularly in the kingdom of Mof Awi (the Land of the King), an ancient Kingdom situated to the west of Ziguinchor which includes the town of Enampor.

Although our research has shown that there is no ‘fétiche’ which prevents women from accessing land, women have always thought the contrary due to the climate of ambiguity promulgated by men in the community. As a result, the issue has long gone unquestioned and the belief that a ‘fétiche’ stopped women from accessing plateau land has been upheld.

A second tradition held that there were places in the kingdom where women could not travel during their menstrual period. During the most recent initiation ceremonies, for which people travelled to the Kingdom from all over Senegal and Europe, some locals raised the issue by pointing out that there would be guests coming from different backgrounds who could not be expected to confirm to these rules. They also pointed out that it would be difficult to control their movements and through these arguments they managed to successfully challenge the practice.

It is in this context of local superstitions being overcome through evidence-based intervention that women decided to research whether any such ‘fétiche’ substantially prevents them from obtaining land rights. These are women on a mission, determined women who use personal testimony to convince their sisters of the importance of choice when it comes to land access. They also use the issue to illustrate the wider injustice which they endure.

At the first meeting of the WAGIC programme the themes of women’s land access, women’s political participation and women’s economic rights were debated by the twenty-five women who are the presidents of the rural women’s network REFECE. When one woman suggested that the issue of land access was the single most important problem facing women, participants were unanimous in their agreement.

The women agreed that the nine project leaders for the action research on women’s land access in Enampor were to come from the community itself. Any women who felt able to commit to the project could apply and have her application considered by two representatives from the area and three of USOFORAL’s (‘Let us join hands’ in the Diola language) field staff.

For the first time in our area, research methods borrowed from academic and scientific approaches (literature reviews, semi-structured interviews, focus groups etc.) are being put to the service of a collective project of positive social transformation initiated by rural women. The project has already delivered on several fronts.

Early on in the research the group responsible for consulting the rural council’s register where land allocations are usually registered discovered that small fruit and vegetable plots assigned to women, land where religious buildings and schools had been built, and even the land where their own organization’s offices were based, did not feature. This meant that this land could be requisitioned by the Rural Council at any time. In response the women approached the Rural Council’s land management committee and registered an application for land allocation to obtain a certificate attesting to their right to use the land where their offices reside. They wanted to ensure that they had definitive permission to use the land and for this to be recorded in the Rural Council’s register.

Two researchers have also successfully won land use rights for areas of land next to those of their respective spouses. In Senegal there is a national law which states that access to land should be equal for all men and women, according to the principle that “the land belongs to those who work it”. The research group that was working with the regional development agency (ARD) discovered this law and shared it with the other researchers. As families manage land in rural communities, the two researchers shared the results of their research with their husbands in order to encourage them to start a dialogue with their own families. This constituted an important pre-step to them accessing land, since even though the land-management committee manages land allocations, it must first negotiate with the family that owns the land in order to obtain agreement.

In order to justify her demands, the first woman showed her husband, who was disabled through illness, that she alone could satisfy their children’s needs and that more land would help her to increase the family’s revenue. She explained that because of the national law on land access, if men do not give their wives ownership of the land then, sooner or later, as the community develops, the State could one day allocate it to foreigners. This would be a loss for the whole community. The second woman drew on the same legal framework. She also explained to her husband the amount of time she wasted each year by going back to her parents’ house to pick and press lemons, simply to get enough for the family to live on. If she had some land of her own not only would she be able to ensure the family ate well, she could sell some of the produce to ensure that her children could go to school and access health care.

The women as a whole submitted the results of their research to village chiefs, customary leaders and other authorities within the rural community. They found that men, women and young people are all in agreement that women play a fundamental role in the economic life of the community, and that their families are the first to profit from this. Many adolescents also believe that their living conditions would improve if their mothers were given access to plateau land and are prepared to side with them in their fight. The research nevertheless also shows that certain men and adolescents fear that if women gain more revenue as result of access to land then they will turn their backs on their husbands, and stop respecting them.

Two meetings have been held with village chiefs to discuss these results and it is in this context that the debate on women’s access to plateau land has been raised. During the first meeting, participants all recognised that women had faithfully interpreted the current situation, however some then argued “but this is tradition!”. Others were more progressive and accepted that it is an injustice that must stand corrected; it was simply that nobody had ever had the idea of raising the issue before. Arguments followed and participants failed to reach an agreement.

The women decided to invite customary chiefs from the rural communities to the second meeting, as well as some residents from the town of Ziguinchor who they knew had been consulted when important decisions had been taken in the past. One of them, who came from the family that owns the most land and lives in Ziguinchor, was very sympathetic to the women’s demands and aligned himself with a teacher from the rural community and another village chief. Their contributions allowed other chiefs to understand the current challenges concerning land access. One person was given the task of creating a document “The Right to Access Land in Local Communities: What Place for Women?”. This key document showed everyone that not giving land to women meant that the whole community ran a great risk: outsiders could take these lands under the National Domain Act N° 64-46.

Over the course of these two meetings, the men present ended up admitting that there was no local ‘fétiche’ which forbade women from accessing land; this tradition had simply been able to prevail because the issue had never been raised in such a convincing and objective way. Discussions will now continue, especially with local people who have long understood it as a question of tradition. Aware of the current challenges, the village chiefs have promised to raise the issue in their communities and to persuade their people, now that they understand the vital contribution that women make to development initiatives within the community. A meeting will take place later this month to feedback on these consultations and to discuss the reactions of people from the different villages.

Although we haven’t yet finished our consultation with decision-makers, village and customary chiefs have already committed to the idea of drafting a charter that would take women’s wishes into account and compel all signatories to guarantee women’s access to both plateau lands and the financial resources needed to develop them.

There is still a long way to go before we reach the signing of the charter, but through our research we now have proof that sometimes we can change tradition. The local research group has already succeeded in obtaining the kind of results that expert researchers have been unable to gather for years! Conventional research may often present itself as an expert affair, yet here in Enampor we have come to realize one thing: a small amount of training goes a long way, and action research on women’s land access is best left to rural women themselves.


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