Can promotion groups help strengthen women’s access and control over land?
In Senegal, women’s ‘promotion groups’ have traditionally been vehicles for helping women share resources, ideas and experiences to increase income. But they are also – somewhat expectedly – enabling women to access and control land, although with limitations. Guest blogger Ibrahima Dia discusses.
As in other sub-Saharan African countries, in Senegal women farmers still struggle to secure land rights – despite a progressive legal framework that supports equal land rights. This is primarily due to socio-cultural constraints and legal implementation challenges.
In practice, most women still access land informally through their male relatives. As a result, they do not have control over produce from the land and cannot use it as the basis of their economic activity.
A growing number of Senegalese women have been circumventing this situation through women’s ‘promotion groups’ – Groupements de Promotion Feminine or ‘GPFs’. These groups emerged in Senegal in the 1970s, promoted by the government and development organisations.
The original intention of GPFs was to bring together self-employed women from the same village who shared common interests. The women would pool resources, ideas and experiences, and develop shared activities to increase their income.
Unlike traditional women’s organisations, GPFs are formalised, and legally recognised. They now operate countrywide and, by the early 2000s, there were more than 6,800 GPFs with over a million members.
GPFs are organised into local and regional federations, sitting under the national federation of women’s promotion groups (Fédération Nationale des Groupements de Promotion Féminine), which was granted NGO status in 1991. GPFs are governed by an executive committee, elected by members.
GPFs: enabling women to access and control land
Although originally established as forums for training, learning and awareness raising (such as seed management or building financial and public speaking skills), GPFs have unexpectedly helped women overcome challenges in obtaining individual use rights on land and to participate in decision making processes on land.
Since they are legally recognised, GPFs can be formally allocated land rights. So rural women began requesting land allocations through their GPF affiliations. This practice – given GPFs’ legal recognition – was seen as more socially acceptable.
These land allocations enable women to generate income through activities including vegetable farming, poultry and cattle farming, and salt mining.
We spoke to women from across Senegal to learn more about whether and how GPFs have helped strengthen their access to and control over land.
"In 2016, our local union was designated a 3.5 ha plot of land which we divided into smaller plots. I had an area of 20-25m2, where I grew chilli peppers. I made 200,000 CFA francs from crop sales and was able to set aside some for household consumption,” says Aminata Diène, president of the local union of Missirah.
In the Senegal River valley, advocacy campaigns led by local GPFs have led to the Société D’Aménagement et d’Exploitation des Terres du Fleuve Sénégal (SAED) (website in French) allocating at least 10% of their developed farmland to local unions. Through this, a growing number of women could access farmland that had traditionally been used by men.
Acting collectively through GPFs has also helped give women a stronger voice in how land is governed locally. According to Aida Cissé, president of the Communal Union of Women’s GPFs in Darou Khoudoss: “GPFs are forums of solidarity, where women can share information and be trained on issues relating to land".
"Through these groups we have organised ourselves better and gained greater awareness of our strength and place in the community. Thanks to organisations including IED Afrique (website in French) we have developed skills which enable us to have greater influence in local land governance”.
Limitations and barriers
All this said, the benefits of land allocations through GPFs are limited, largely due to small plot size, and the plots often being on poor quality land.
Usually, use rights are granted to the whole group and each member is allocated a small section of the plot. By the time the land is divided up, each plot is often very small – capable of generating only minimal economic activity. In Guédé, a village in the Senegal River valley, 6800m2 of land has been allocated to the local GPF.
If the 40 members were to share the land equally, each would have a 170m2 plot, producing barely enough to meet women’s needs.
Accessing land through GPFs is also hindering women’s fight to gain individual control over land. When women access land through their GPF affiliation, local authorities consider them to already have access to land despite the limitations described above.
According to Thérèse Mbaye from the Rural Women’s Network: “Through training and learning, GFPs can strengthen women’s leadership. But their impact on women’s access to and control of land remains limited. Local authorities’ advocacy work can increase the plot sizes allocated to GPFs, [but] GPFs need greater technical and financial support from the state and NGOs to make women’s empowerment a reality.”
While women’s promotion groups have helped secure women’s land rights and strengthen their participation in decision making processes, they shouldn’t be seen as the 'go-to' solution.
Firstly, the approach bypasses the socio-cultural constraints that women face when trying to access land, rather than solving them. Also, because – as we’ve seen – in practice, it often results in women gaining control over tiny plots that do not bring socio-economic empowerment.
Despite these shortcomings, GPFs in Senegal remind us of the power of the collective to shift paradigms. Accessing land through groups may not be the definitive solution, but being organised in groups gives women power and voice to make change happen.
Collective action should be more prominent in strategies to strengthen women’s land rights. Women’s groups need more support from governments and NGOs, so they can become genuine spaces for empowerment. This includes strengthening these groups’ political and economic influence as well as recognising them as key development actors.