“The power to decide”: How transformative gender dialogues enable women farmers in Ghana to access land

by 30th Jun 2016
People gathering for the gender dialogue People gathering for the gender dialogue

By Gianluca Nardi and Katherine Carr (CARE International UK, Programme Officer - Africa)

When we arrive in Kariyata, a rural community in the Upper Eastern region of Ghana, close to Garu, most of the women in the community are waiting for us within a circle of shea trees that they normally use for meetings, and some men are also there, although in a separate group. The community is partly Christian and partly Muslim and partly followers of traditional religions and all of them are there for one reason: to talk about gender.

This is the second dialogue happening since the beginning of the project last year. As we wait, the group of people becomes larger, and even more men appear. They are willing to speak about and sort out issues that normally generate conflicts in their household and in the community. The average household level income in the project communities is around US$2.40 per day, with an average household size of 7.3 persons. Less than one-tenth (7.8%) of household heads have formal education.

Gladys Assibi (pictured below), CARE’s gender advisor and dialogue facilitator, breaks the ice and makes everybody introduce her or himself, each in their local languages, as more people join the meeting. They all know her and talk to her with great respect and enthusiasm.

Gladys Assibi

During the first dialogue the group discussed the concept of gender and the cultural norms where certain tasks and expectations are associated with each gender. For instance, in that region, traditionally men repair the house roof, women do the household chores and pay for the school fees, men raise and sell the chickens and own the land, women the fetch water, etc. Gladys also explained how life would be much happier in the family if men and women could help each other in their respective tasks.

During this second dialogue Gladys plans to discuss justice and human rights that people can claim regardless of their gender, like for instance the freedom of movement, the freedom from violence, the right to own land.

Changing roles

Gladys asks what changes have taken place in the community since the last dialogue. Many people stand up to share their experiences. Among the improvements, women mention that boys as well as girls are now helping with chores in the house, husbands are starting to be involved in tasks like fetching water, buying household soap, bathing children and paying school fees. A man reports that they are changing roles: whereas he used to be in charge of sweeping outside and his wife taking care of the inside, now he can also sweep inside and she outside. School fees used to be paid only by the women, and now men are paying, sometimes they even pay them and then come home and tell their wife it is already paid. Generally there is less violence against women, the community reports.

Another young man who is not married says his father never respected his mother and therefore he had few educational opportunities when he was young. They never communicated with each other about his education. As a result of the gender dialogues, his parents talked together and offered him the chance to learn a trade, carpentry. He is very happy and now he gets a little money from his apprenticeship work to buy soap and he feels good about his appearance.

A widow says she learned that women can do things for themselves and that she doesn’t have to follow gender norms: it used to be taboo for women to thatch or repair their roofs and she now knows she can do this herself.

Community dynamics

Gladys asks how many men have released fertile lands to their wives. One man says his wife wanted to grow soya and he gave her land and in return one night he came home to find that she had already fed his chickens for him so he appreciated that. Another woman says that her husband has given her more fertile land while he used to give her poor quality land.

Gladys acknowledges all these changes at the household level. She wants to hear from a woman who spoke at length during the first dialogue about how she wanted to leave her husband as he was very violent towards her, especially after drinking. Gladys asks her if anything has changed and she says no, in front of a taciturn husband who looks pretty uneasy. Gladys asks the community members what they have done to help. They have informed one village chief that alcohol is a problem but this is an unresolved issue. At the end of the dialogue, Gladys arranges to come back and speak to the village chief and the couple in private.

In order to introduce the concept of equality in freedom of movement, Gladys organises a simple exercise. She collects some shea nuts from the ground and distributes them among men and women. Then she asks women to put their shea nuts in the basket if they need permission from their partner to leave the house. Almost all of them do it. Afterwards she asks the same question to men, and only one man puts the nut in the basket, but later withdraws it, ashamed. Gladys does not judge, she simply explains that this is what society expects from men and women. People start to discuss and draw their conclusions from what they have seen.

A step towards economic empowerment

Some powerful changes in the community have come about as a result of simply talking about gender issues, without judgement and without lecturing. Gladys also explains us that the gender dialogue is the tip of the iceberg of an overall gender strategy in the Household Economic Security for Poor Women (HESP) project. The other elements of the strategy are:

  • The Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs) are also platforms where women discuss gender issues, and are trained in financial education and leadership, although men’s participation is much more limited than in the dialogues.
  • 1 woman and 1 man in each community are trained as gender champions and they stimulate dialogue, lead by example, and follow up on the issues identified during the dialogues.
  • The project promotes different roles for women in rural value chains as traders, processors, entrepreneurs.

Changing gender norms is an essential element of women’s economic empowerment in value chains – and possibly the most challenging element – as these norms can restrict women’s mobility, women’s access to and control over productive resources like land, credit and training, and their ability to make their own economic decisions. The project baseline indicated that:

[O]nly women in female-headed households could for instance make their own decisions regarding production; access to resources; control over income and leadership in the community. This, according to them, was as a result of the absence of the husband and/or the inability of the eldest male child to champion such decisions. In decisions, especially regarding access to land and other productive resources such as land or what to put on it, they reckoned that “the absence of one’s husband does not deprive you of his share of the farm land and you decide what to use it for”. Women in male-headed households were said to be controlled by their husbands and as such could not make their own decisions or have control over resources.

Therefore the changes that we have witnessed in a relatively short amount of time should lead to significant improvements in women’s lives and in increased productivity and income. Monitoring the extent of these changes and learning along the way will be our focus during the next two years of the project. As one woman interviewed for the baseline study put it:

The time that a woman will have power to decide on everything that concerns her is when I can say the woman is empowered. When she has her own farm land to cultivate whatever she wants and decide what to do with the money from her produce, then she is empowered. But as at now, women do not control anything, everything is the man.

The HESP project is funded by the Big Lottery Fund (total value of the grant is £453,073) over three years. HESP will reach at least 3,000 smallholder women farmers and indirectly benefit a total of 18,000 household members in the Garu Tempane and Lambussie-Karnie districts of Upper East and Upper West regions of Ghana. HESP aims to increase agricultural productivity and household income for women smallholder farmers through improved and sustainable farming methods and increased access to productive resources.

Big Lottery Fund logo

Gianluca Nardi

Gianluca worked in the Private Sector Engagement team and then the Women's Economic Empowerment team at CARE International UK from 2005 to 2017. Gianluca's main areas of expertise are market facilitation, women’s empowerment, micro-enterprise development, rural development, private sector engagement and working with extractive industries.

He has over 15 years experience working in various management and consultancy roles in Brazil, Nicaragua, Angola, Cambodia and Italy, in both the private sector and NGOs. He holds a Masters in International Development from the University of Ferrara, an ILO Diploma on Inclusive Market Facilitation, a diploma in Extractive Industries and Sustainable Development from the Catholic University of Lima, and a certificate from the Advanced Social Management Programme from the University of Cambridge and the University of Queensland CSRM.

One good thing I’ve read

Changing your company from the inside out: A guide for social intrapreneurs, by Gerald Davis and Christopher White. An inspiring guide to making big changes and a social impact by transforming large companies from the inside. It is fascinating to see the many similarities between social movements generating big societal changes and inspiring individuals doing the same in their own organizations.

Twitter: @gianlucabrasil