Author: Emma Orchardson, October 2 2015 - This month marks the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Conference on Women. While celebrating the achievements of the past two decades, it is equally important to keep highlighting the current issues faced by women around the world. Let’s ensure that their voices are heard, and that their distinct challenges continue to be taken into consideration when preparing the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

Rural communities: time for a change?

“If today we were to march in defence of women’s rights, tonight we would be exiled from town so as not to suffer the reprisals of tomorrow.”

For all their passion and optimism, at times the Burkinabé women I spoke to could paint an alarming picture. Most complaints are whispered in their extremely non-confrontational culture, and an almost crippling fear of causing offense within their small, rural community can seemingly override any desire for change.

In July 2015 I was fortunate enough to carry out a series of interviews at La Maison de la Femme, a rural women’s NGO [non-governmental organisation] in Réo, Sanguié Province, Burkina Faso. The three women I spoke to were all small-scale cultivators, who grow peanuts, petit pois and pois de terre on the parcels of land surrounding their houses. Over the course of several discussions, they explained that women lack security as a result of cultural practices which limit their access to land.

In theory, all land in state-owned and its allocation government controlled. In practice, land is family-owned and distributed to individuals by male family members who often see the allocation of land to women as a financial loss. They emphasised that even if a woman is able to acquire a small plot of land, the verbal agreement between her and the land owner provides little security and can be retracted at any given moment, more often than not after the difficult “first-season”, where farmers work hard to improve the quality of the land without reaping much reward in terms of crop production.

There was also some suggestion that modernisation has had a negative effect on women’s security. Where previously the set-up worked to protect families’ interests in subsistence farming, in recent years profit has become increasingly important, with male land owners more likely to grow cash crops such as cotton which will generate greater revenue. As a result, rural women have found it increasingly challenging to find adequate land on which to carry out their agricultural activities.

This difficulty in accessing land exists throughout the country, though the extent of the problem often varies as a result of different cultural practices between ethnic groups. Attempts by the government to establish a nationwide system of land distribution have in many instances been overpowered by pre-existing local land allocation systems. The government has made some effort to improve land security, introducing law No. 034-2009 six years ago, which aimed to combine both national and traditional systems, ensuring that both are recognised throughout the country. However, so far the law has only been applied in some provinces, and only two communes within Sanguié. Even within these communes, its application remains mostly theoretical. In Réo for example, local government is yet to receive the necessary government assistance in order to conduct awareness raising activities regarding the new law. As a result, implementation has been near impossible, and many rural communities still suffer to uncoordinated dualism of Burkina Faso’s legal system.

In Sanguié, the difficult transition between traditional and modern land law has led to the development of a particularly negative relationship between gender and access to land. In an agriculture-dependent country such as Burkina Faso, where women play a critical role in agricultural production, this gender-based inequality can have severe consequences for rural communities, with a growing body of evidence demonstrating a strong relationship between land tenure insecurity and food insecurity. As such, enabling women to acquire land security should play a central role in rural development activities, as this will work towards achieving positive change in a number of related areas, for instance: economic empowerment, combating infant and child malnutrition, and reducing vulnerability to domestic violence and diseases such as HIV/AIDS.

In spite of all the obstacles they face, the women at the Maison de la Femme were surprisingly enthusiastic about what the future might hold, emphasizing that change is possible and necessary in order to insure secure land rights for all members of rural communities. All three interviewees expressed a wish to become land owners in their own right, highlighting awareness raising and advocacy as a good method of bringing about change and reaching out to the more vulnerable members of their community. “And men need to play a key role in this process,” they explained. “Here in Burkina Faso we like to say, if you want someone to change, you must flatter them. So rather than forcing male community members to accept a new way of life we need to ensure that they can also have their say, because change will not occur without the participation of the whole community.”

This blog is submitted by International Service. Click here to read about more of their work in Burkina Faso.