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Dimitra Workshops

Promoting women's access to land as a means of combating food insecurity and poverty

Dimitra network workshop in Brussels, Belgium from 22-26 September 2008

In the context of the ongoing global crisis and an international economic environment marked by soaring food prices, relentless demographic pressure, alarming climate changes and an insatiable quest for raw materials, there is a growing trend toward the "feminisation of poverty" throughout Africa, especially in rural areas. In the face of these conditions, which are particularly hostile to the development of disadvantaged populations, it is urgent to provide women with the means of fulfilling their role as pillars of the community and key drivers of the economy.

From 22 to 26 September 2008, the Dimitra network held a workshop in Brussels focusing on women's access to land in Africa and the information and communication strategies to be developed to combat gender inequalities in this area. The workshop – the fourth of its kind organised in Brussels – provided an opportunity for a fruitful exchange of knowledge and experience between Dimitra and its network partners, among them field practitioners from several regions of Africa (West Africa, the Maghreb, Central Africa and the Great Lakes Regions, East Africa and the Indian Ocean). The meeting was also attended by representatives of several technical departments of FAO as well as of bilateral agencies with which Dimitra collaborates on the ground, including the Swiss Cooperation Office in Niger and the Canadian International Development Agency and the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The week-long process of reflection concluded at the King Baudouin Foundation – which has supported the Dimitra project from its inception – in the presence of the Foundation's Managing Director, a Representative of the Belgian Minister for Development Cooperation and representatives of a number of national and international organisations based in Brussels. They all praised the quality of the work carried out by the Dimitra network, highlighting, in particular, the importance of the theme chosen for this year's workshop.

Developing common policies on access to land and women's status

The workshop enabled participants to share insights into the situation of women and their access to land in Africa in recent years, on the basis of a participatory approach. Each participant drew on his or her personal and professional experience to analyse women's role in development in the current crisis context.

While the current economic crisis is a global one, the situation is particularly dramatic in Africa. As far as reducing poverty is concerned, the Millennium Objectives for Development remain largely unfulfilled. Furthermore, over the past few decades several regions of the continent have been severely affected by armed conflicts and long periods of political instability. Very often, these conflicts have resulted in the massive displacement of the civilian population, leading in turn – among other adverse consequences – to increased exposure to HIV/AIDS and violence against women and children.

Thanks to the discussions and exchanges of experience, participants were able to draw up a list of the causes and difficulties associated with women's access to land. Fewer and fewer cultivable plots are available, both as a cause and a result of the increasing commoditisation of land. This process often involves land speculation by those who hold economic or political power, whether in the state administration or in the traditional power structures.

Difficulties in accessing resources. The risk of declining agricultural production

The analysis of the situation highlighted the huge deficit of information and communication on issues concerning women's access to land. The inequalities inherent in the traditional division of gender roles prevent women's access to power structures and influence, and limit women's control over, and access to, resources. As a general rule, rural populations, particularly women, play little or no part in public decision-making, both in qualitative and quantitative terms.

While women bear the brunt of family and community responsibilities, they do not enjoy the same privileges as men. Women's dependent status hinders the development of economic activity. To this we must add other factors that have an adverse effect on rural communities and women in particular, such as underinvestment in rural development and women's restricted access to credit from financial institutions and to financial resources and income in general. The reduction or even complete absence of material resources explains in some cases the fall in agricultural production. The resulting food insecurity has a significant negative impact on women's living conditions, their health and their children.

In an agricultural subsistence economy, the importance of women's role in production cannot be overemphasised. Women are therefore the first to suffer the effects of the lack (or limited availability) of resources and productive inputs.

What can be done to improve the situation? What arguments can women – and all those who support them – put forward to enforce their rights?

Trapped between inadequate legislation and discriminatory customs. What way forward for women?

In many countries, existing legislation has been drafted without the involvement of women and other stakeholders in the community. As a result, laws are often inadequately implemented, easily flouted and/or discriminatory. The conclusions of the workshop highlighted the educational deficiencies and "skills gap" which affect rural communities in a number of key areas, including the use of efficient agricultural techniques, business management, the creation of self-support groups, the organisation of economic activities, etc. In particular, women – and even the community and religious leaders – are not familiar with the relevant laws and legal procedures concerning the use of land or with the family codes in force in their respective countries. This ignorance deprives women of a crucial instrument to uphold and enforce their rights.

Another obstacle to gender equality in rural areas is the fact that land is always distributed to the advantage of men, in keeping with a traditional patriarchal system which perpetuates inequalities.

Improving information and training in everyone's interest

In spite of all the efforts by governments, technical and financial partners, communities and civil society organisations, much still remains to be done.

Following the activities and exchanges carried out within various subgroups, participants in the workshop pooled their conclusions and views on the most effective methods and priority areas for action to implement effective information and communication strategies. It emerged from the discussion that action should focus on:

  • Capacity building, particularly through training, literacy campaigns, exchange of information and the restructuring of local organisations, in order to provide rural populations, and especially women and children, with effective instruments to play a leading role in their communities.
  • It is also important to provide children and young people with equitable education opportunities. In some cases, positive discrimination in favour of girls is considered legitimate. Providing education, both formal and informal, for young people who have missed out on school is also considered essential. 
  •  There was also consensus among participants that the laws and regulations governing land ownership and management must be publicised and disseminated more effectively as an integral part of an effective information and communication strategy to combat inequality in access to land. Furthermore, it is essential to develop technical and legal assistance programmes as well as support schemes to strengthen the capacities of community NGOs.
  • As regards action-research, the emphasis should be on developing efficient systems to gather information and statistical data as well to carry out an in-depth analysis of qualitative and quantitative indicators. Research in this field should be documented and the results disseminated widely.
  • In this area as in others, a good communication strategy requires mobilising organisations to follow up the issues and carry out effective advocacy campaigns to influence decision-makers. This also implies ensuring the participation of women in policymaking and lobbying activities, particularly those targeting traditional community leaders and government authorities.
  • Lastly, at a more general level, it is essential to promote women's social and economic empowerment in order to provide them with land tenure security, better access to resources and greater control of production. This task is directly linked to the aim of improving the status of women in each country. 

Mobilisation and networking

Networking embraces many stakeholders and a wide range of organisations working at different levels, from the micro-level (rural communities, agricultural producers, decentralised institutions) to the intermediate level (NGOs, civil society) to the macro-level (public institutions, policymakers, donors). In order to ensure that the necessary resources are available (funds, human resources, skills, etc.), all of these stakeholders must work together. One essential aim of networking is therefore to promote synergies between field practitioners as well as horizontal coordination between different activities.

All participants made a commitment to implement – in their respective fields of action and at their level – the information and communication strategy jointly agreed by all of Dimitra's partners. For his part, the Representative of the Ministry for Development Cooperation reassured the FAO's Dimitra network and its partners of the Minister's continuing support and interest in their work.

The results and conclusions of the workshop have been published in a workshop report ( 4.4 MB)