• Sunday, November 23, 2014
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    Using Law for Rural Women’s Empowerment in West Africa (WiLDAF-AO)

    How to translate rights and legal entitlements into reality for many rural women who do not know how to claim their rights nor how to seek redress over unfair treatment? Credit: Suleiman Mbatiah/IPS

    Agriculture is key to women’s livelihoods in rural West Africa and to the survival of the national economies. But despite women’s crucial work on the farms women’s rights to land ownership, control and access to land continues to be neglected.

    The importance of African women farmers has been long recognized in international development since the famous study by Ester Boserup in 1970 a message that continues to be underlined in major reports such 2010-2011 UN State of Food and Agriculture Report on ‘Women and Agriculture: Closing the gender gap for development’.

    Rural Women will be the subject of the Commission on the Status of Women in 2012 and there are are also numerous protocols and international agreements including The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR)  and The African Union Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa (“Women’s 
Protocol”).

    But how to translate these rights and legal entitlements into reality for many rural women who do not know how to claim their rights nor how to seek redress over unfair treatment?

    There are many impediments due to patriarchal customs and laws that mean that poor women are left vulnerable. Particularly widows whose husbands die intestate and wives from polygamous unions who are not recognized as legally married. These women are easily exploited and lose access to land they work and depend on for survival. Uneducated rural women in West Africa are often not well informed about their legal rights nor have the business acumen about how to purchase or lease land using processes that involve complex economic and social negotiations, often dominated by men. Studies in the region reveal that women mostly enter into oral land transactions and fail to register their land, and most women do not inherit land but gain access via marriage. The study also revealed that violence against women by in-laws often prevented women from taking up their rights.

    Women in Development and Law WiLDAF-AO in West Africa reaches out to women farmers to promote the access of women to full ownership of land and to work on the land in safe and secure conditions. WiLDAF-AO recognizes that this requires women being educated on their rights including participating in decision-making within the communities and in farmer organisations. It also means supporting women’s rights in the settlement of family disputes and community of inheritance claims and tackling violence against women in rural areas.

    The MDG3 Fund has provided WiLDAF-AO with the funds to support women members of farmers’ organisations and rural women in 5 West African countries to know and claim their rights. Through the support of the Fund WiLDAF-AO is training 250 women in farmers’ organisations on how to change gender inequalities experienced by rural women in West Africa particularly around land inheritance and access to resources and economic opportunities and access to power and decision-making.
    In this hands on work, WiLDAF-AO is presently working with farmers’ organisations in Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo. In these countries WiLDAF-AO trains paralegals to work with the women farmers to understand the law to help them in their homes, communities and economic activities. They also initiate support women to combat violence against rural women involving the community, including men in the fight to end violence.

    Apart from training, education, sensitization and legal advice, WiLDAF-AO also supports advocacy activities at community and national levels for rural women to lobby for legal changes to ensure their access to inheritance, and to support women’s agricultural and commercial activities.

    At the core of WiLDAF-AO activities is to ensure awareness by rural women of their rights and their actions to make them known and ensure their application in their families, communities and in their professional lives. It also takes up cases of violence and family disputes, namely those related to inheritance issues and tries to encourage local authorities to allocate plots of land to be allocated to  rural women with full ownership . With the aim to ensure that there is a working legal framework to promote gender equal access to land WiLDAF-AO undertakes legal education to support the ratification and implementation of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights relating to women’s rights in Africa in countries

    For example in Benin a paralegal trained by WILDAF was able to support a woman who was beaten by her husband after a dispute with her co-wife. She underwent three weeks hospitalisation and was forced by relatives to return back to the maize farm that she cultivated with her husband and co-wife. The paralegal helped the woman to report to the police even though she fear being punished further. The paralegal worked with both the husband and wife in order to convince the husband to sign an agreement in front of the police to not beat his wife again.

    Another example of WiLDAF-AO’s work is in Yotocopé in Togo. A paralegal helped a widow to recover farmland confiscated by her in-laws. The widow had been sent off the land she had worked with her husband. With assistance of the paralegal she appealed to the village chief who intervened on her behalf and she was given back her rights to work the land after three years of deprivation.

    It is complex and painstaking work, that requires not only knowing the law but also how to ensure conditions change so that a woman gains her rights and maintains her respect in the community. Often these changes are not so much economic but social. These examples show how important it is to work with women over time to assert their rights to land fully aware of the difficulties a rural woman has to overcome if she is to claim her full rights to land that provides her livelihoods, safety and sustainable future.

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