By Zoe Tabary
BOGOSSONI, Mali, May 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Anthio Mounkoro has been farming land in Bogossoni for as long as she can remember – but none of it was ever hers.
"The land I've been cultivating my whole life is my father's," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation while meticulously watering a batch of shallots, careful not to waste one drop from the hose.
"No woman in my village owns land – that's for men, it's just the way it is."
In Malian society, men control access to land and decide which parts, if any, women are allowed to farm.
That has become especially problematic for women as increasingly erratic weather, including longer droughts, has increased competition for land and harvests, experts say.
In some cases, crop losses on their own land have led men to encroach on land traditionally farmed by women and even steal women's crops, according to development workers in the area.
But an experiment in securing women's access to small plots of land - and training them to grow crops in difficult climate conditions - aims to change that.
Over the past year, community groups from 18 villages in this region of central Mali have negotiated with private landlords to set aside a share of their land for women to farm.
The agreements are then put down in writing and certified by local authorities.
The initiative, led by International Relief and Development (IRD), a charity, is part of the Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) programme, funded by the UK Department for International Development.
Under the land agreements, community groups that rent the land in turn lease it to women "for a small fee" said Sidi Dicko, the regional coordinator for Groupe de Formation Consultation et Etude, one of the effort's local partners.
In Bogossoni, for example, 147 women each now grow vegetables on a 5 square-metre plot of land in exchange for a monthly fee of 250 CFA francs (about $0.40) paid to the community group.
The women sell two-thirds of their harvest at nearby markets, and keep the rest to eat at home.
FIRST LAND, THEN A CROP
Simply having access to land is critical - but women also need to know how to get reliable harvests from it despite increasingly upredictable weather conditions, Dicko said.
In Bogossoni, as in many Malian villages, rising temparatures and erratic rainfall have caused fields and soil to dry up, making it difficult to grow much of anything.
"It gets hotter every day, and our crops don't always survive," said Mounkoro, tying a bright blue piece of fabric on her head to escape the searing 45 degree Celsius (113 degree Farenheit) heat.
The worst part of such crop failures, she said is "not having enough to feed my family".
But the project has helped her and other women buy drought-resistant seeds, identify new pests and learn to dry vegetables such as shallots so they can be stored for longer and sold in the "lean season" – when prices for food are at their highest.
"I now grow about 100kg of shallots per harvesting season, instead of 30kg previously," Mounkoro said.
According to Virginie Le Masson, a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, a British think tank, access to land is key for women to build up resources and diversify their sources of income, which can help them cope with bad weather.
Clear land rights can also help them hold on to what they produce, she said.
"A common pitfall is men allowing women to farm land but keeping the spoils for themselves," Le Masson said.
"In Chad, for example, I've seen women who had piles of millet stored at home but weren't allowed to access it because their husbands were away working seasonal jobs."
"Attempts to build women's resilience need to acknowledge the social norms women are confronted with, if they are to be successful," she added.
Fatoumata Gareka, the deputy project director at IRD, believes that "putting women's right to use the land in writing will make it more likely they can derive the benefits of their own work."
Not all of the new land agreements are yet written down and certified, she said, but the project is moving toward that goal.
The women's initiative, supported by technical agents trained by U.N. Women, has gained credibility in the community's eyes by working closely with village elders and local authorities, she said.
But she cautioned against ignoring local customs.
"When it comes to land, modern law and customary law in Mali are often at odds with each other," Gareka said. "So modern law might say women are allowed to farm land, for example, but in practice it remains the husband's or father's decision."
That makes facilitating women's access to land a delicate enterprise, she said.
"When engaging with communities, we're careful not to say, 'We're giving women land' but 'We're securing land used by women.'"
"Semantics are key here," she said. "One misstep could spark a backlash against women and ruin months of progress."
KEEPING DAUGHTERS AT HOME
Women in the region say they hope that better prospects of earning money at home will allow their daughters to stay in the community instead of setting off for Bamako, the capital, in search of a job, often as a maid.
Mati Magadji, from the nearby village of Kolondialan, has not seen Hatoumata, her 14-year-old daughter, in three years. She has been working as a housekeeper for distant relatives in Bamako.
"There is nothing for her to do here," said Magadji, holding a squirming child on her lap. "So we sent her to earn money to put towards her dowry, as we start to look for a suitable husband for her."
Most of the women in the village have sent their daughters away, while their sons often choose to leave for seasonal jobs abroad.
"Some come back to help during the rainy season but in the dry months you won't find any youth here," Magadji said.
"If there was more work for them to do here – like more land to farm – we would have no reason to send them away," she said, sighing.
Mounkoro, whose six children are now all married and have left the village, said she hopes to be able to continue farming her plot of land – but she does not expect to ever own it.
"I've never asked the question (of ownership) but at least I'm allowed to farm the land," she said. "And the men in our village are happy because we bring back money to buy food and send our children to school."
(Reporting by Zoe Tabary @zoetabary, editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, resilience and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)