In many African countries, men enjoy land ownership and women often do the agricultural work, Photo: Others

By Firmain Eric Mbadinga

Madame Zouléath, a fifty-something Beninese mother of four, couldn't have imagined until two years ago that she would own a plot of land in her native village of Niaro someday.

The tide turned for her after a conversation between her husband and the founder of Tonkouro, a local NGO raising awareness about women's property rights.

Now that she has 2.5 hectares of land in her name, Zouléath feels empowered in every way. She aims to create a small farm, growing staples like manioc tuber and yam to contribute to her household income.

Zouléath, whose village is north of the department of Borgou in Benin, may be an exception in the rural belt despite constitutional and legal safeguards for women's access to property by birth and marriage.

There are calls for more women to own lands. Photo: Others

Benin's Constitution of 1990 guarantees gender equality, which extends to access to land. The reality on the ground partly explains Zouléath's sense of unexpected joy.

A 2020 study by the Benin chapter of Women in Law and Development in Africa (WILDAF)revealed that less than 30% of the country's women own land.

In many African countries, men have historically enjoyed primacy in land ownership even though women often do most of the agricultural work, including ploughing.

This limited access is concerning for the African Union, which has pledged to work towards ensuring that by 2030, at least 30% of land across the continent is owned by women.

In Benin, various community organisations have been assisting women in overcoming cultural and traditional resistance.

Combating biases

Tonkouro's founder, 27-year-old Tamou Charaf Yarou, believes the law can be enforced only if deeply ingrained social mores are changed.

"Women face enormous constraints that prevent them from increasing their productivity. These include land access and security. The issue of women's access to land resources is not only a legal matter but also a socio-cultural and political one," Yarou tells TRT Afrika.

Convinced that constructive discussion could bring about change, Yarou embarked on a mission in 2019 to raise awareness by interacting extensively with people in the towns and villages.

Tonkouro took shape this year despite limited resources for an initiative of this kind.

"One day, I asked three of my fellow villagers from Niaro in the commune of Sinendé why they were refusing to allow their wives to own land and sow crops," recounts Yarou.

Awareness campaigns are helping promote women land rights: Photo: Others

"They told me that if they were to do that, society wouldn't respect them. Then I asked them what would happen after they were dead. Silence filled the room. The following season, each granted a parcel of land to their wives. I can tell it worked."

Beninese sociologist and anthropologist Edith Assangbé would like the government to raise its target for women's land ownership and strengthen legal provisions.

"Of course, the law exists. However, in rural areas, cultural influence can prevent some women from disposing of land. Many of these women are also unaware of their land rights," she tells TRT Afrika.

This situation highlights the importance of awareness campaigns like those run by Yarou.

Interlinked priorities

Based on World Bank data, agriculture accounts for around 25% of Africa's GDP. A more striking statistic is that women make up almost half the workforce.

Given the dynamics of the agricultural economy, greater access to land ownership for women could positively impact the GDP of many African countries.

Yarou (in front) and his NGO aim to train women in income-generating skills. Photo: Others

Yarou's NGO aims to train women in skills that will enable them to participate in income-generating activities such as pottery and shea butter production, among others.

"By empowering rural women, we could transform education as a whole. With access to land, these women can build farms, earn enough money to be self-sufficient, feed their families, send their children to school, help combat food insecurity, and protect our land, biodiversity, and vegetation," explains Yarou.

Besides drawing data from studies by the United Nations and institutions such as Oxfam, Belgian agency Enabel, UNICEF and CARE International, Yarou conducts his own surveys to structure his actions in the field.

"My NGO Tonkouro, which means 'woman' in my native Bariba tongue, is an expression of my objective to empower women," he says.

Yarou, who has been doing community work for five years, uses his geographer skills to raise funds for Tonkouro's mission. In a short time, the NGO's membership has swelled to 17 committed workers and many volunteers.

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TRT Afrika