The West African project helps them claim their rights – and land

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ZIGUINCHOR, Senegal (AP) – Mariama Sonko’s voice echoed around the 40 women farmers who sat in the shade of a cashew tree. He took notes, his nose crooked as his story was followed by falling fruit.

This quiet village in Senegal is the headquarters of West Africa’s 115,000 rural women’s rights group, We Are The Solution. Sonko, its president, is training female farmers from areas where women are often not allowed to own land where they do most of the work.

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

“We work from morning till night, but with all that we do, what do we get?” Sonko asked.

He believes that when rural women are given land, positions and other things, it will be very difficult in the communities. Her group educates women farmers who traditionally lack access to education, articulates their rights and provides funding for women-led agricultural projects.

Throughout West Africa, women often have no land because they are expected to leave the village when they get married. But when they move to their husbands’ houses, they are not given a place because they are not related by blood.

Sonko grew up watching her mother suffer after her father died, with small children to support her.

“If they had the land, they would support us,” he recalls, his voice now clear. Instead, Sonko had to marry young, drop out of school and leave her parents’ home.

After moving to her husband’s town at the age of 19, Sonko and several other women persuaded the landowner to rent them a small piece of land to share in their produce. They planted fruit trees and started a market garden. Five years later, when the trees were full of papayas and grapefruits, the owner pushed.

The incident marked Sonko.

“This made me fight for women to have a place to thrive and improve their rights,” she said. After getting a job at a women’s aid organization supported by Catholic Relief Services, managing small loans for rural women, the project began.

“Women farmers are invisible,” said Laure Tall, director of research at the Agricultural and Rural Prospect Initiative, a grassroots group in Senegal. This is despite the fact that women work two to four more hours a day than men on farms.

But when women earn money, they put it back into their community, the health and education of their children, Tall said. Men spend some of the household income but can choose to use the rest as they wish. Sonko cited common examples such as finding a new wife, drinking and buying fertilizers and pesticides that earn money instead of providing food.

With the encouragement of her husband, who died in 1997, Sonko decided to sell other women. Its training center now employs more than 20 people, supported by small philanthropic organizations such as the Agroecology Fund and the CLIMA Fund.

In a recent week, Sonko and her team taught more than 100 women from three countries, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau and Gambia, about agriculture – growing trees and crops together as a way to protect themselves from bad weather – and gardening, growing small-scale food. a place where there is no access to land.

Another student, Binta Diatta, said We Are the Solution bought irrigation equipment, plants, and fences – a total of $4,000 – and helped women in her town find a market garden, one of the more than 50 funds the organization provides.

When Diatta started earning money, she said she used it to buy food, clothes and her children’s education. His efforts were recognized.

“In the next season, all the men accompanied us to the market garden because they saw it as valuable,” he said, recalling how he came to testify.

Now another problem has arisen that affects both women and men: climate change.

In Senegal and the surrounding areas, the temperature is rising by 50% more than the average in the world, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the UN Environment Program says it may rain. 38% in the next few decades.

Where Sonko lives, the rainy season is short and unpredictable. Saltwater is seeping into his coastal rice fields and mangroves, due to rising sea levels. In some cases, the yield is so bad that farmers abandon their rice fields.

But adaptation to a warmer world has proven to be a strength for women as they adopt climate skills faster than men, said Ena Derenoncourt, an economist for women-led agriculture at AICCRA.

“They have nothing to do because they are the most vulnerable and vulnerable to climate change,” Derenoncourt said. “They are the ones most motivated to find answers.”

On a recent day, Sonko gathered 30 famous women rice farmers to document hundreds of rice varieties. They mentioned the names of the rice – over the centuries, which were named after famous female farmers, which were passed down from generation to generation – and the women repeated what they called in their villages.

The conservation of local rice varieties not only helps us adapt to climate change but also emphasizes the role of women as caretakers of crops.

“Seeds are completely feminine and give women value in their communities,” said Sonko. “That’s why we’re working with them, to give them confidence and responsibility in agriculture.”

The knowledge of hundreds of plants and their response to different growth conditions has been important in giving women an important role in communities.

Sonko claimed to have all kinds of crops including high rainfall, drought and salt resistant mangroves.

Last year, he produced 2 tons of rice on his half-hectare plot without the use of pesticides or fertilizers that are widely supported in Senegal. The yield was more than double that of the fully chemically applied plots in the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2017 project in the same region.

“Our seeds are hardy,” Sonko said, sifting through clay pots full of rice designed to store the seeds for years. “Old seeds are not resistant to climate change and require more. They need fertilizers and pesticides.”

The cultural connection between women farmers, their crops and the land means they can avoid pesticides, said Charles Katy, an ethnologist in Senegal who is helping to document Sonko rice varieties.

He saw the organic fertilizers that Sonko made from manure, and the pesticides made from ginger, garlic and chilli.

One of Sonko’s students, Sounkarou Kébé, also described his experiments with tomato pests. Instead of using artificial pesticides, he tried to use the bark of a tree that used to grow in the Casamance region of Senegal to treat intestinal infections in humans caused by pathogens.

After a week, all the infections were gone, Kébé said.

As evening approached the training ground, insects hummed in the background and Sonko prepared for another training session. He said: “There are very important things. They are now trying to establish seven more farms in southern Senegal.

Looking back at the group of women studying in the dim light, she said: “My biggest battle in this group is to make people understand the importance of women.”

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The Associated Press receives financial support for global health and development in Africa from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Trust. AP is solely responsible for all content. Get APs standards when working with providers, a list of providers and areas that are funded AP.org.

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