Mali: Land to Live On - the Struggle of Displaced Women in Mali

In the vast expanses between the cliffs and plains of central Mali, where the winds carry the echoes of a silent struggle, lies a sad reality. Here, displaced women are fighting for a fundamental right: access to land.

Since 2012, Mali has been facing a complex conflict involving various armed groups. This conflict has led to massive population displacements, particularly in the central regions of the country. The conflict has had a devastating impact on civilians, depriving them of their livelihoods and forcing them to flee their homes. Displaced women are particularly vulnerable and face multiple challenges, including access to land.

In the regions of Djenné and Bankass, marked by history and cradled by tradition, three women lost everything when they were forced to flee their homes. Gathé, Fatoumata and Welohorè are now fighting tooth and nail to get a few plots of land to cultivate so they can provide for their families.

Fighting for their existence

Gathé is a displaced woman living in a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) near Djenné. She fled attacks in April 2021 in her village of Saré-héré. With resilience in her eyes, she recounts her precarious daily life.

"We fled the conflict, but here too we are confronted with other realities of life, those of fighting for our existence," she says.

"We are grateful to the landowners who allow us to use their land, but we are constantly uncertain about how long this authorisation will last. We can't invest fully in our crops for fear of having to abandon our plots overnight."

Gathé is one of dozens of women from the Djenné camp who rent small areas on a one-hectare plot of land granted by landowners. They are obliged to pay 250 West African CFA francs (equivalent to 0.40 US Dollars) per month and an additional 2,000 FCFA for registration.

Humanitarian aid is temporary

A hundred kilometres further south, in Djaba Peulh, Welohorè is also displaced. A 45-year-old mother of six children, she has been living in Djaba Peulh for four years.

"We want to have access to land to farm and feed our families. We know that humanitarian aid, however long it lasts, will come to an end one day. And we'll have to take care of ourselves afterwards," she explains.

Access to land offers displaced women the opportunity to grow their own food, generate an income, and contribute to the development of their host communities. It also strengthens their economic autonomy and enables them to provide for their families on a sustainable basis.

Without access to land, displaced women can become more dependent on others for their livelihoods. This can make them more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. They may be forced to accept dangerous living conditions for themselves and their children, just to survive.

"You can't give land to women"

Mali's agricultural orientation law, enacted in 2017, provides for 15 per cent of state land developments to be allocated to women's and youth groups.

However, the reality on the ground is very different. The testimonies we gathered revealed limited and precarious access to land, hampered by deep-rooted administrative and customary barriers. Nor are the administrative authorities taking the necessary steps to implement the law in favour of women and young people. According to a representative of the Muslim community in Djenné, the other challenge is the availability of land.

In this complex picture, one voice resonates with authority - that of the traditional chief of Golo, just 2 km from Bankass. With disconcerting frankness, he outlines the challenges facing the ambition of land equity.

"In Golo, you can't give land to women. On the other hand, men can lend them a few plots of land for their market gardening activities. But they must agree not to grow millet. They can only grow groundnuts," he asserts, his words laden with the weight of a thousand years of history.

The promise of a better life

As a result of the conflict, many of Mali's displaced people have lost their land and livelihoods. Fatoumata, a 53-year-old mother of eight, shares her story with emotion.

"We had to flee our villages because of the conflict, leaving behind our land and our roots. It's not that we didn't have land to farm. But it's the armed attacks that got us into this," she confides.

"We want to continue to live. To do that, we need a place to farm, but the road to getting land here is long and full of pitfalls."

Faced with this reality, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) has set up projects to help women gain secure access to land. These initiatives remain insufficient to meet the needs of all internally displaced women in the region. But despite the challenges, many have found their niche in irrigated perimeters, with the help of humanitarian actors such as NRC.

As calls for help echo across the hills and valleys of Mali, they carry with them the hope of a fairer and more equitable future through effective implementation of the land law.

For Gathé, Fatoumata and Welohorè, like many displaced women in central Mali, this land is much more than just a piece of soil. It represents the promise of a better life, newfound autonomy and preserved dignity.

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