Ghana's women farmers fight patriarchal system of land access

·4-min read

Access and control of farmland can be major problems for women in Ghana, especially in the northern regions, where patriarchy reigns and traditional rulers decide who gets farming plots.

In Gusheigu district, Fatimata and other women were unable to farm during the 2020 season because their husbands decided to cultivate instead.

Fatimata, who lives in the Zinnindo community, cultivated maize and peanuts on an acre of land for each of the past five years but could not grow anything this year.

“I don’t own farmland,” Fatimata tells Africa Calling podcast correspondent Zubaida Mabuno Ismail. “I farm my husband’s land. He told me several times that he needed the land, which meant I didn’t work this year."

According to the International Monetary Fund, Ghanaian women farmers are responsible for up to 87 percent of total agricultural productivity, yet are regularly thwarted by their husbands, who make the ultimate decision as to whether their wives will farm or not.

Another female farmer, Adishetu Iddrisu, had the same problem this year.

“I’ve been farming peanuts and corn for the past three years on one acre of land where I harvest a maximum of three bags of maize – sometimes I wanted to expand it so I can harvest at least 10 bags, but I’m unable to do that,” she says.

Women are keen to farm, not only for additional income, but in order to pay for their children’s education.

According to a report by the Social Enterprise Development Foundation Ghana (SWIDA Ghana), a regional development group, women could increase yields by 20 to 30 percent if they had the same access to productive resources as their male counterparts.

“Land access has remained our biggest challenge,” says Fatimata.

There has been some progress at the Zinnindo traditional council, which doles out the land.

They have begun to listen to the women, and some men who support Fatimata and Adishetu’s aspirations for larger-scale farming are willing to lead the conversation at the council.

Rural marriage registrations

In rural areas of Ghana where polygamy is practised, access and ownership of land is even more complicated for women.

The Ghanaian Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that property acquired during marriage is joint property, even if the spouse does not contribute goods or salary. This is also the law in case of divorce.

However, in the northern regions of Ghana, marriage registrations are few and far between, says Alima Sagito Saeed, executive director of SWIDA Ghana.

“Our people believe that when you go to court it limits you from increasing the number of wives, so the idea of registering a marriage is a no-go area for discussion,” says Saeed. “If a woman is able to acquire land herself, we encourage her to go register it."

Beating the odds

Although many farming women have difficulties accessing land for cultivation, those in the Nanton and Savelugu districts in northern Ghana have managed to secure some 80 hectares of arable land.

The women in the Nyolugu community got some help from SWIDA Ghana, but the process took time.

“Over the years we’ve worked with these women and they have been very particular about accessing the right type of land for the right type of crop,” says Executive Director Saeed.

“This year, we identified three main communities, then we decided to lead the engagement with the chiefs,” she adds.

Saeed contends that when women involve the community, and explain their circumstances, leaders are more likely to cooperate; in fact, traditional councils and heads of clans have argued that no woman has been denied access to farmland.

“We want to go beyond access -- we want them to have control over the land. When they invest in it, tenure is important,” she says.

These efforts have been successful, enabling women to secure some virgin land, which is considered a ‘land bank’ for the farming women in the community.

“The chief has resolved to let the women own this land for farming so they can support their children’s education,” Nyologu Wulan Issahaku, an elder from Nyolugu palace tells Africa Calling podcast correspondent Zubaida Mabuno Ismail.

He says that the traditional council has now resolved to bequeath a whole parcel of 80 hectares to the women.

“We have long held onto the decision that women don’t farm,” says Issahaku.

“All we’ve done is to ask them to prepare our meals and send them to the farm while we cultivate our crops,” he adds.

For the women of the Nyolugu women’s group, the land concession was considered a victory, especially as they had never farmed more than two hectares. They are ready to take on the challenge.

“We are a group of 65 women who used to run a village savings scheme,” says Ayi Iddrisu, the leader of the women’s group.

“We had no idea women could venture into larger-scale farming until we were given this vast land,” she adds.