West Africa project helps them claim their rights and get land

GIGUINCHOL, Senegal (AP) – Mariamma Sonko’s voice echoed through a circle of 40 female farmers sitting in the shade of a cashew tree. When her lecture was interrupted by the sound of falling fruit, they scribbled notes and furrowed their brows in concentration.

This sleepy village in Senegal is the headquarters of We Are the Solution, a rights movement of 115,000 rural women in West Africa. Its president, Sonko, trains female farmers from a culture where women are often excluded from ownership of the land they work closely with.

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

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

She believes that when rural women are given land, responsibility, and resources, it has a ripple effect throughout the community. Her movement is about training traditionally underserved women farmers, explaining their rights, and funding women-led agricultural projects.

Across West Africa, women typically do not own land because they are expected to leave their communities upon marriage. However, even if she moves to her husband’s parents’ home, she will not be given land because there is no blood relationship.

Sonko grew up watching her mother struggle with her young children after her father passed away.

“If she had land, she could have supported us,” she recalls, her usually cheerful voice now soft. Instead, Sonko had to marry young, abandon her studies and leave her ancestral home.

After moving to her husband’s town at age 19, Sonko and several other women persuaded landowners to let them rent a small plot of land in exchange for a portion of their crops. They planted fruit trees and started a market garden. Five years later, when the tree was full of papaya and grapefruit, the owner kicked it down.

The experience left an impression on Sonko.

“This inspired me to fight for women to have the space to grow and take control of their rights,” she said. She then took a job at a women’s charity funded by Catholic Relief Services, coordinating microloans for rural women.

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

But when women earn money, they reinvest it in their communities, health and children’s education, Toll said. Men spend part of it on household expenses, but can spend the rest as they wish. Sonko gave common examples such as finding a new wife and drinking or buying fertilizers and pesticides for crops that make money instead of providing food.

With encouragement from her husband, who passed away in 1997, Sonko chose to invest in other women. Her training Her center currently employs more than 20 people and receives support from small charities such as the Agroecology Fund and her CLIMA Foundation.

In recent weeks, Sonko and her team have taught more than 100 women from Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, and Gambia about agroforestry, the practice of growing trees and crops together as a means of protection from extreme weather. , provided training in micro-gardening, which involves growing food using extremely small plants. Space where there is little access to land.

Binta Diatta, one of the trainees, said We Are the Solution will purchase irrigation equipment, seeds, and fencing (a $4,000 investment) to help women in her town access land for market gardens. He said he did.

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

“The next season, all the men took us to the market garden because they thought it was worth it,” she says, adding that she didn’t want them to come just to witness it. I remembered the time.

There is another challenge currently affecting both women and men: climate change.

Temperatures in Senegal and surrounding areas are more than 50% warmer than the global average, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the United Nations Environment Program says rainfall could decline. 38% in the next few decades.

In the area where Sonko lives, the rainy season is becoming shorter and less predictable. Rising sea levels are causing salt water to invade estuaries and rice fields adjacent to mangroves. In some cases, yield losses are so severe that farmers abandon their fields.

But women have an advantage in adapting to global warming because they adopt climate change innovations much faster than men, says Ena Delenoncourt, investment specialist for women-led agricultural projects at agricultural research agency AICCRA. He says something has been proven.

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

On a recent day, Sonko gathered 30 prominent female rice farmers to document hundreds of local rice varieties. She yelled out Rice’s name. It’s hundreds of years old, named after a famous female farmer, and passed down from generation to generation. Then the women went along with what they call it in their villages.

Saving this indigenous rice variety is not only key to adapting to climate change, but also emphasizes women’s status as guardians of traditional seeds.

“The seeds are completely feminine and give value to women in the community,” Sonko said. “That’s why we’re working to give them more confidence and responsibility in farming.”

Knowledge about hundreds of seeds and how they respond to different growing conditions is essential in giving women a more influential role in their communities.

Mr Sonko claimed he had seeds for all conditions, including too wet, too dry and even the saline conditions of mangroves.

Last year, she produced two tons of rice on half a hectare of land without using any synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, which are heavily subsidized in Senegal. This yield was more than double that of plots in the same region that used chemicals entirely in a 2017 UN Food and Agriculture Organization project.

“Our seeds are resilient,” Sonko said as he sifted through clay pots containing rice designed to preserve the seeds for decades. “Conventional seeds don’t survive climate change and are very demanding. They need fertilizers and pesticides.”

Charles Katy, a Senegalese indigenous wisdom expert who is helping document the Sonko rice variety, says there is a cultural intimacy between women farmers, their seeds and the land, which can harm the soil. He says this means they are more likely to avoid chemicals.

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

One of Sonko’s trainees, Sonkalow Kebe, talked about her experiments with parasites in tomato fields. Instead of using manufactured pesticides, she tried to use tree bark, which is traditionally used in Senegal’s Casamance region to treat human intestinal problems caused by parasites.

After a week, Kebbe said all the illnesses had subsided.

As dusk approaches at the training center, the sound of insects echoing in the background, Sonko prepares for another training session. “There’s too much demand,” she said. She is currently establishing seven more agricultural centers throughout southern Senegal.

Looking back at the circle of women studying in the fading light, she said: “My big struggle in this movement is to make humanity understand the importance of women.”

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