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Women's access to land in West Africa: problems and suggested solutions in Senegal and Burkina Faso

Sub-regional Round Table in Mbour, Senegal from 2-4 July 2008

Within the framework of the activities initiated by Enda-Pronat and Dimitra in 2003 to promote women's access to land, a round table was held on this issue in Mbour (Senegal) from 2 to 4 July 2008 by Enda-Pronat and RECIF/ONG-BF, with the support of Dimitra and the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC). The meeting focused on the issues surrounding rural women's access to land in Senegal and Burkina Faso.


© Dimitra

As with most other parts of the Sahel region, the economy of both countries is essentially rural, based on agriculture and stockbreeding. Women are the main actors in the agricultural sector and play a key role on family farms, where they supply most of the labour force. However, they do not enjoy the same rights as men with regard to access to land, in spite of the fact that land is essential to the performance of economic activities and that equitable access to land is a prerequisite for sustainable development.

For some years now, civil society has been calling on the authorities to take effective measures to remove the problems that still hinder women's access to land as well as to other natural resources. Laws have been passed granting women equal rights to land and property, but the reality on the ground is very different: access to land is still marred by inequalities, and a huge gap remains between the law and traditional practices.

The situation requires concerted action with a view to exchanging experiences, identifying the existing obstacles and putting forward concrete proposals for more effective action to help improve women's access to land. It was with these aims in mind that the Mbour round table was organised. Participants included representatives of civil society, farmers' associations, government departments and MPs, research institutes, universities and funders. This diversity enabled a fruitful exchange of views, highlighting the common ground and the complementarity of different approaches and the potential for synergy between them.

The gap between the law and reality

In Senegal, Article 15 of the Constitution (2001) enshrines the right to land and property for both men and women. In principle, any restrictions based on religious beliefs or traditional practices are outlawed. But experience on the ground shows that, more often than not, traditional land is still managed in accordance with customary law, which seldom recognises women's right to land.

Many women have never heard of the existence of laws which would enable them to exercise their rights and, even when they are aware of such laws, they dare not call into question the traditional social rules and relations between women and men.

In Burkina Faso, as regards the right to land and property, modern legislation and customary law coexist side by side. From a strictly legal point of view, the 1991 Constitution and the Agricultural and Land Reform Act establish the right to land for all, without discrimination. In practice, however, many obstacles stand in the way of rural women's access to land.

In rural areas, access to land is governed by customary law, which forms part of a set of social relations which place women in a dependent, "negotiated", precarious position. Women are excluded from exercising any real control over the management of land. The argument is that a woman comes from another clan, which owns land in her native village. Thus, in general, women have no right of ownership, but only an "authorisation" to make use of the land. The schemes implemented in the areas managed by the State do not always take account of women's specific needs. For example, the plots allocated to rural women's groups are often located on poorly levelled land, and their size does not reflect the number of persons in the group.

Inventory of the situation

The presentations and discussions held during the round table enabled participants to draw an inventory of the situation and to identify the existing obstacles and possible strategic guidelines for action.

In the first place, the contradictions and areas of overlap between customary law and modern law were clearly pinpointed. Creating synergy between women's rights was identified as an essential step to improve the situation.

Attention was also drawn to the increasingly complex and ever changing environment in the countries concerned. The latter are characterised by a diversity of challenges: economic (energy crisis, higher food prices, etc.) as well as political (development plans, agricultural policies, etc.), socio-cultural (migration, emergence of a middle class, changing lifestyles, etc.) and environmental (climate change, soil degradation, etc.) across different levels, from the local to the global. It is therefore necessary to address the issue of land management from a global perspective, taking into account gender equality issues, in order to ensure that the strategies developed to promote women's access to land encompass all the relevant social, economic, political and environmental factors and contribute to sustainable development while at the same time protecting everyone's rights.

Participants agreed that a variety of actions – often backed by civil society organisations as well as by government measures – were being implemented to facilitate women's access to land, but unfortunately these actions did not always receive the attention they deserved.

It was also observed that in many cases it is easier to take action at the local level, which is often the most appropriate place to enhance the impact of successful experiences, explore new avenues for progress and "multiply the exceptions" in the hope that one day such exceptions will become the rule! It is therefore essential to increase the number of local initiatives, highlighting good practices and giving attention to the interactions between the local, intermediary and national levels.

Proposed solutions

The debates and exchanges of the round table showed that good practices and successful experiences in the area of women's access to land are basically geared to effective communication, information, mobilisation and advocacy. A cross-sectoral gender perspective and constant exchanges between the local, intermediary and national levels are essential to this approach. It is also important to make the most of community experiences by identifying, analysing, disseminating and capitalising on successful practices.

Participants highlighted, in particular, the importance of:

  • Workshops, meetings and exchange visits as well as the importance of creating and strengthening solidarity networks, promoting the recognition of rights and awareness of established legislation, and promoting women's empowerment; 
  • Access to information on land issues, rights and laws, in an easily understandable form and using the local languages, thus contributing to the spread of good practices and the emergence of local leaders;
  • Lobbying and advocacy: We need to convince and identify all players and stakeholders, set targets, establish alliances and address all levels, developing appropriate bottom-up advocacy techniques for each audience and using NGOs, civil society organisations and democratic decision-making institutions as implementing partners.

Synergies and networking

The proposed guidelines emphasise the importance of synergies, alliances and cooperation between all levels of society to achieve the desired aims.

Participants pledged, among other commitments, to report on the activities of the round table to their respective organisations and institutions in order to increase public awareness, inform on developments, mobilise resources and disseminate the results of the process by different means, including e.g. the Internet, newsletters, publications and networks. They also expressed their determination to remain in contact and exchange relevant information on the issues under discussion. Lastly, it was suggested to organise further meetings to follow up on the conclusions of the round table as well as to support and promote new initiatives in the area of women's access to land.

Dimitra a publié unereprenant les idées-clés de la table ronde.

A brochure (  - 1.6 MB) summarising the key ideas of the round table has been published by Dimitra in French.

For additional information, please contact Dimitra or its partners:

Enda-PRONAT, Protection des Ressources Naturelles
Fatou Sow Ndiaye
B.P. 3370
Dakar – Senegal
Tél : +221 338893439 - Fax : +221 338428681

RECIF/ONG-BF, Réseau de communication, d’information et de formation des femmes dans les ONG au Burkina Faso
Françoise Bibiane Yoda
01 BP 6473
Ouagadougou 01 – Burkina Faso
Tél:                +226 50 31 22 25