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One Square Metre of Land

One Square Metre of Land

I am the oldest of my father’s six surviving children. We are part of a big extended family system and it is taken for granted that men are decision makers. Being a woman I was not considered a threat to claim my right to inherit my father’s landed property. In fact nobody has ever done so in the family. For instance when my grandfather died, those of his widows who could stay with their children did so but those who could not disperse into their own world. It took me twenty-three years of silence and one year of battling with patriarchy to have control over my rightful inheritance and decide what to do with it.

Understanding the complex social, cultural organization of how land is used and owned is important to break the cycle of abuse and exploitation of the properties of orphans and widows. For instance, a whole generation of children has lost ownership of their father’s land and I did not want that cycle of abuse to continue in my family. As a human rights activist, I had to take a stand to ensure that justice is done regarding our family inheritance, even risking being snubbed in my own extended family.

In my society land issues are shrouded in myths, yet it is of the most valued properties one can claim as wealth. My community town located in the coastal part of the Gambia and close to the Atlantic Ocean, is increasingly attracting property buyers and developers. Some urban women are also buying landed property situated in these rural coastal towns and villages. For the rural women, this is threatening. Most of them only have access to use the land to grow vegetables and rice. Furthermore, most of them would never own the land they are accessing for farming except they fight for it. In the traditional social psyche most rural women are not expected to own land. Women are not expected to be independent and to live on their own property without a man in their shadow. They either live with their parents, husband or brother at any given time of the lives.

In the society there are traditional structures, councils that are expected to maintain social cohesion and peace. Members of such councils are the elderly or the knowledgeable and they include religious scholars. In times of dispute they are expected to intervene and ensure that there is justice for peace to prevail. Such groups are also important in addressing issues of inheritance for orphans and widows. In many cases they do not facilitate such processes and in the end most women give up on the right to land by being silent.

Traditional systems of controlling and managing land are recognized in our communities. These include volunteers assigned to take care of the land and most of the time the community is aware of the ownership because of the “Kabilo” system in the community. For instance, an elder brother could be taking care of the landed property of a younger brother but members of the family will know who the owner is. It is usually mutually beneficial. However it should be noted that taking care of the property does not mean ownership.

While I was silent for twenty-three years, I was actively watching and noting how people in positions of power play out their power over others. Some families are evicted from their properties because they have nobody to stand for them. Mostly these are women who are vulnerable and are coerced to re-marry to their late husband’s brother to continue to stay in the family compound. If they decide not to do so they are evicted along with their young children, even if the children are boys. Some are forced to leave their sons behind with the extended family, mostly with the paternal uncles and the widows are only allowed to go with the girls. In such processes, the widows and their children are also denied inheritance of landed property. In situations where the children are adults and in particular if they are boys, the widows stay in the late husband’s house whether they re-marry amongst the men in the family or outsiders. A widow re-marrying to a late husband’s brother is so common that the practice and is called “wife inheritance.” (It should be noted that in Islam, a wife cannot be inherited. Marriage is based on consent.)

Injustice can cause unnecessary human sufferings. For twenty-three years, I have watched a particular family where the widow struggled in difficult situations with her children just because she was not in control of the property of her children and even her own share of the property. Not sharing inheritance at the right time can cause a lot of suffering in families. While overcoming the grief of losing the loved one, the rest of the family should not suffer because an uncle or brother has decided to be silent over the property of the orphans and widows. This particular family has a huge fruit tree orchard and the income was being enjoyed by others in the extended family. To my dismay not even the scholars who are closely associated to the family stood up to ensure justice prevailed. The children had to go from one place to another to have support to be educated and their mother borrowing other people’s land to grow vegetables and rice as well as engage in petty trading at the market. She should have been the decision maker in the absence of her late husband on how to use the income from the fruit trees, perhaps to pay school fees, feed the children with less difficulty.

I studied this family to understand all these complex dynamics about inheritance which were not based on the teachings of the Quran. During this period I had learnt about my right as a Muslim woman and it gave me hope that when I approach the religious scholars about my inheritance, their decision will be based on the teachings of Islam. To my disappointment and dismay the arguments I initially received were socio-cultural sentiments towards a particular group of people forgetting that I did not ask for privileges but my right to have my share of my father’s landed property. I was even surprised that people I expected to stand for justice were the very ones who were against my decision to claim for my rights. I was not convinced with some of their reasons. “Your uncle took care of the land for your father and now that he is dead, his children want to have a share of the land.” This was going to be more challenging than I thought.

I reflected on the family I had studied over the years. I remembered the widow telling me she could not claim her rights and that of her children because there is myth about fighting over landed property. She did not want anything bad to befall her children, so she just waited with the hope that someone will see the need to give them what was theirs. I did not realize that asking for my right would be a ‘fight’. I had to take a decision whether to also succumb to the myth that if I claim my right to landed property some supernatural means would be fall me or allow people to continue to control and benefit from what is rightfully mine.

I reflected on what options I had and finally I was determined that no matter how long it took and what was going to happen, I would break the cycle of abuse of orphans and widows in my family. I was ready to take responsibility. This meant having to face a group of patriarchs who could not simply understand why I had to claim for a piece of land. I gave them the option to settle the matter at the family level or we go for a legal battle to settle it for us. I knew I had all the evidence to support my case and they were not comfortable with the questions I asked. I wanted to know whether a girl child can and should inherit from her father and if so I wanted only my share of my father’s property. It did not matter to me the size I would have but I should be able to have my name on it and be able to take decision about it. It also meant that I took the risk being isolated in my extended family for starting “trouble” in the family. I had to stand up to the negative perceptions about being a woman trying to be a ‘man’. One of Scholars told me “Amie why are you bothering yourself with all this trouble knowing that your share as a girl is half of your brothers’.” But it seems one of the elderly women in the family assumed she had an answer and she told me “You don’t need this land, all you’re trying to do is to proof your point about the women’s rights issues you and Dr. Isatou are talking about.”

I had to admit that she was right, but the underlying fact is even if I was to have only one square metre of the land I would be happy that I was able to break the myths about claiming landed property.

After a year-long ‘fight’ through meetings, consultations between the family members, family friends and the Islamic scholars, my father’s landed property was shared. All the children had their share, be they male or female and my father’s two widows also had their share of the land. I now have control over what belongs to me. The fact that justice has been done at the end, it also brought the extended family closer that it had been when the feeling of injustice shrouded the relationship. When I was later visited by one of them, he confessed “You know most of the scholars did not understand your stand at the beginning, I think you should be engaging them more.” Well I’m happy to do so but what I hope has been achieved was that my case has set the standard that those who are in control of making decisions about the lives of others would be aware of the impact of their decisions on orphans and widows.

People in position of power need to be aware that with education and enlightenment people are increasingly becoming conscious of their rights and can no longer accept abuse and subordination of women. It should not be taken for granted that the signing and ratification of global and regional commitments to promote and protect the rights of women is enough. Development partners need to invest in the education and empowerment of grassroots women in particular. Women need to be aware of their rights in order to overcome social and cultural myths and be able to stand up for those rights at the national and community levels but more importantly at the family level. For instance, the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Protocol to the African Charter on the Human and Peoples Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (also called the Maputo Protocol) call for the respect of the rights of women to own land and have equal and equitable share of their inheritance. That is why GAMCOTRAP, a Women Rights organization in the Gambia does not restrict its message to education regarding Female Genital Mutilation. It also raises awareness about other traditional practices that deny women their other rights, including their right to inherit land, cattle or any other property. I hope sharing my story on my struggle to get my right to inherit landed property will motive the many silent women in similar context to speak out against social and cultural myths that continue to silence women and deny them their right to inherit land.

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Comments

Leslie Stoupas's picture

You are a role model!

Thanks for sharing your powerful story! Establishing your, and other women's, right to land ownership contributes to the economic independence that helps women protect the human rights that others attempt to strip from them. Bravo to you and your voice!

Leslie Stoupas

amiesissoho's picture

LesIie agree with you that

LesIie agree with you that economic independence of women positively contribute to theier empowerment to protect their human rights. Thanks for reading.

Amie

Okeny-Lucia's picture

Yes women must inherit!

Thank you Ammie,
The land issue is a thorny issue among our African societies,especially when it is about women.For a long time land has been masculine,women don't have a say when there spouses die.However am very happy to let you know that in the Kenya Constitution now women have equal rights on ownership and on heritance.It is a big relief to us.I hope change will prevail soon in Gambia.

Lucia Buyanza
Reproductive Health

amiesissoho's picture

In the Gambia the

In the Gambia the constitution does not bar women from having land. It is the long held practice that land belong to men that are so entrenched that women do not question their right to it. It always believed that women would be under the guidance of men who should provide shelter for them. It is important for women to recognized that they have the right to land to be able to claim it. I'm glad that your country has a constitutional provision to protect the legal rights of women.

Amie

Stella Paul's picture

Thank you Amie

Thanks for sharing this story. Yes, land right is crucial to women, because it is directly connected to her economic independence, as well as being a decision maker. I loved the positive message that it reflects here: change is possible, if we care to bring it ourselves.

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

amiesissoho's picture

Stella dear, I agree change

Stella dear, I agree change is possible if we care to do what it takes. Thanks.

Amie

valerie.bagley's picture

Well done, Amie!

After reading this story, I feel enlightened and informed on an issue I previously didn't even know existed. I love your optimistic tone, encouraging women like you that change is possible. This is heartfelt, personal, informative, and applicable. Thanks for sharing your experience, Amie.

amiesissoho's picture

World Pulse is proving the

World Pulse is proving the opportunity for us to share our stories. Thanks Valerie for taking time to read it.

Amie

Celine's picture

Hello Amie

Hello Amie,

I am glad reading your writing on Module 2, which has given me much insight on land matters in another country, and more so your optimism on the issue.

In my country, women are never allowed to inherit any land and I hardly see women dreaming of changing this status quo.There are cultural attachments to land issues, which starting point is that women are never allowed to even discuss or be in meetings where land matters are discussed. In cities, fine, women can acquire landed properties as far as they can afford the means to do so.

Thank you Amie, for this insightful writing.

Celine

amiesissoho's picture

Sharing our experiences can

Sharing our experiences can help us learn from the strategies we adapt to negotiate within the difficult and limited spaces available.

Amie

Monica Clarke's picture

Famous People and land

Dear Amie

What is it between ourselves and mother earth which causes such conflict? Why is it that the magnetism of land freezes our souls against each other and raises walls of resistance and greed? Why is it that land causes countries to murder and steal from each other and individuals to guard, resist and grab? All this when the land does not belong to any of us but to Mother Earth herself!

Your article brought back so many issues for me: the wisdom or otherwise of of ownership versus possession; memories of colonial greed and familial infights - the list is very long, so long.

A little secret (mentioning no names). In South Africa a famous school for girls has just celebrated its first anniversary. It is quite a posh school, and it was started by a very famous billionaire American woman's rights tv chatshow hostess, humanitarian and philanthropost, admired by all. Leaving out discussion of the merits of having posh schools in the midst of poverty (an argument in itself), that same lady went to South Africa a few years ago and tried to buy up a large portion of prime seaside land, to own it for herself, taking it away from the people whose birthright it is! Fortunately the memory of the people was still fresh enough after Apartheid's years of illegal appropriation of land, and they resisted the lady - and the land was not sold to her.......'Je ne comprends pas', as the French say.

Thank God people like you are around to help us. And keep writing, girl, you send a strong message.

Love and hugs from Monica in France

Monica Clarke, Writer & Storyteller, bringing human rights alive.
I wish you 'Nangamso', that is: May you continue to do the good work which you do so well.
(A blessing from my ancestors, the Khoikhoi, the first people of South Africa).

amiesissoho's picture

You're right that there are

You're right that there are many other issues about land that are beyond my article that need to be discuss to establish injustices lying within.

For me claiming land was to establish that i had a right to it and I have the right to decide was to do with it. Also while I was fighting for what was mine, my other younger siblings and their mother were relying on me to get their right to inherit their father and husband.

Once again thanks.

Amie

Monica Clarke's picture

Dear Amie Please forgive me

Dear Amie

Please forgive me if my comment sounded stand-offish. In fact, I meant exactly what you feel: That our right to our land is an inalienable birthright, which nobody can take away from us - be they countries, societies, religions or cultures. I questioned where they thought they got the power from to remove our birthright from us when mother earth belongs to all of us.

Your fighting for what is a right (not a privilege as you so rightly say) is admirable. I shall, with your permission, keep your story in my memory box and use it when needed to prove that fighting for what seems to be un-utterable and unattainable is worth going for. Your ability to stand up against the male voice of culture is admirable and what you did is spot on.

I send you strength!

Monica

Monica Clarke, Writer & Storyteller, bringing human rights alive.
I wish you 'Nangamso', that is: May you continue to do the good work which you do so well.
(A blessing from my ancestors, the Khoikhoi, the first people of South Africa).

amiesissoho's picture

My dear Monica, I have not

My dear Monica, I have not been offended in any way. Please note that I value your comments so much because I read sincerity in them. Also feel free to use my article as and when you think it is useful to you and other. That is exactly the reason I share them, so that I can motivate others to resist abuse no matter how difficult it may seem.

with much love,

Amie

ikirimat's picture

Well done.

Your voice is so strong and articulate. Well done.

I agree with all of you that land issues are still considered a man's issue. In my culture in Uganda when any land issues are discussed a woman is not supposed to make any comment because land in never a woman's issue. If a woman buys land she is called 'a man' (in a negative tone)

With time (advocacy, sensitization etc) I believe the story will be different
So lets keep going forward

Grace Ikirimat

"It takes the hammer of persistence to drive the nail of success."


amiesissoho's picture

Grace dear, thanks for the

Grace dear, thanks for the encouragement

Amie

WILDKat's picture

Sisters unite

Amie,

May I commend to you Beatrice Achieng Nas from last year on World Pulse. She tells a powerful tale also of land and the liberation available when right transfer supports women and children in being free and independent. You can read more about the compelling outcome of her World Pulse experience on her Facebook page.
https://www.facebook.com/groups/rgcm.uganda/?notif_t=group_activity

Your beautiful writing gives me a deeper understanding of African Islam and land issues.

Naturally grateful,
Kat Haber

"Know thyself." ~ Plato

amiesissoho's picture

Kat, Thanks for the

Kat,

Thanks for the encouragement. I'm glad that the article has contributed to your deeper understanding of a complex social setup mixed with religion. Also thanks for sharing my sister's link

Amie

Rachael Maddock-Hughes's picture

Standing Up

You are an incredible role model for other women and men in your community. Thank you for having the courage to speak out on this matter and sharing your story with us. I wonder if you have seen any impacts in other families now that you have set the standard? Would love to hear more about that. Also, one quick note--to make your story even stronger, I would recommend interweaving some statistics on land issues. I know there is quite a bit of research out there! I would also suggest you get in touch with Beatrice Achieng Nas, a correspondent from 2010 who also stood up for her family's right to land after the last male heir died from AIDS.

Keep up the good work!

Rachael

"In every human heart there are a few passions that last a lifetime. They're with us from the moment we're born, and nothing can dilute their intensity." Rob Brezny

amiesissoho's picture

Thanks Rachael for your

Thanks Rachael for your observations on statistics. As you noted this requires more research and I was really engaged outside the writing of the article and it was almost a last hour finalization despite the time we had to prepare for it.

This time of the year is busy when one is working for an NGO - end of year reports and finalizing proposal for the coming year, etc.

I hope we have been influencing other women through our advocacy work because we share our stories and experiences to encourage other women.

Amie

Juliette Maughan's picture

Keep it up

Amie,

You cannot stop, use your case to help and inspire other women to speak out. It is not only about land but about the marginalization of women, the breaking up of families and pretty much banishing people into poverty.

I have heard about cases like this before and it saddens me that other family members would allow this practice to go on.

Even in my country, I remember a friend of mine - single girl- had saved up to buy her own property and how the lenders were encouraging her to get a partner to purchase the land with. It was frustrating but she managed to get it.

You have a lot of work cut out for you.

Blessings,

Juliette

amiesissoho's picture

Dear Julliete, Life is full

Dear Julliete,

Life is full of challenges and frustrations. What we all have is the ability to negotiate and overcome them in our small ways. Thanks for the motivation to read the article.

Amie

Valéria Barbosa da Silva's picture

Blessings to their struggle

I'm glad for your strength and know that when running with the crank arm of the law firm other women may have their own piece of land, beginning with the women in her family. Congratulations dear for his courage in this undertaking.

Mothers do not want to abandon their children and not want to lose their land.

Kisses
Valéria

amiesissoho's picture

Thanks you Valeria for your

Thanks you Valeria for your comments and observations. Understanding our rights can give us courage.

Cheers,

Amie

usha kc's picture

Amie it's so great dear.

Amie it's so great dear. please go always ahead and my prayers is always with you.
love your post.

hugs

amiesissoho's picture

Thanks for reading, Cheers,

Thanks for reading,

Cheers,

Amie

revchristie's picture

Courage and perseverance

Thank you for showing how things can change and how one persons determined action can make a difference for many!

You are a light in this world.

Rev. Christie

amiesissoho's picture

Dear Rev Christie, Thank you

Dear Rev Christie,

Thank you for taking time to read the article and your words of encouragement.

Cheers,

Amie

MaDube's picture

Dear Sis Amie

Why am I not surprised that you are the one who broke the cycle of deprivation and suppression in your family. The most obvious reason is because I know you for the strong, determined woman that you are. It is women like you who make our patriarchal societies all the better because you stand up for yourself and demand that the old traditions be changed, seeing as how they do not help women in any way. Your determination and courage is truly inspiring and I wish you success in letting Gambian women know that they can access land and there is nothing to stop them from doing so.

I hope all has been well with you.

With lots of love,

MaDube

amiesissoho's picture

Thank you dear Sister for the

Thank you dear Sister for the encouragement. It will never be easy but that is no reason why we should stop doing our best to demand our rights as individuals and as a group.

Amie

Greengirl's picture

Kudos!

Dear Sister Amie,
Let me start by saying that the title is catchy!
You are surely a pacesetter. I have no doubt that the steps you took and the victorious outcome will be a reference point for many women in Gambia and beyond.
The lack of control over land is surely one of the greatest constraints that women (especially low income ones) face. Such situation also prevails amongst various ethnic groups across Nigeria. For example, among the Yorubas (the ethnic group to which I belong), the different modes of property sharing are in favour of the male gender. There are many stories of women who have been exposed to all forms of ill treatment in an attempt to secure their property rights. I hope to share one that readily comes to mind on my blog soon.
As an advocate for women's equal rights to access natural resources, I share your determination and celebrate your success. I am sure you would be interested in an upcoming "Women’s Land Rights Visiting Professionals Program", please see www.landesa.org. I intend to apply too. All the best!
Thanks for being an inspiration!

Olanike Olugboji

amiesissoho's picture

Dear Sister

Dear Sister Olanike,

Determination to make a difference comes with a price we should be ready to pay to free ourselves. I appreciate the motivation you have from the article. Thanks for sharing the information on the upcoming programme and best of luck.

Amie

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