Women’s Property Law in Gambia

This week I was able to code a document about land ownership and property rights in Gambia and definitely learned a lot. Gambia’s constitution spells out that “women shall have the right to equal treatment with men, including equal opportunities in political, economic and social activities” (Section 28[2]). Although these rights may not seem far reaching, it would appear that women, especially in regards to economic activities, would have access to credit, land, and the ability to pass on their land rights to their children, just as men do. However, after a little more digging through the constitution, we learn that “Section 33[5] states that the provisions on protection from discrimination are excluded from laws on adoption, marriage, divorce, burial, devolution of property on death or other matters of personal law,” basically anything to do with the personal affairs of women are subject to discrimination. On top of these exclusions, Shari’a law applies to 90% of the population. Shari’a law, which basically fills in the gap of Section 35[5] of the constitution regarding personal affairs, deals directly with matters such as marriage, divorce, property rights, and so on.

This then begs the question about what rights are actually afforded to women. I will only focus on rights dealing with land ownership and access to credit. With respect to credit, women in Gambia do have the legal right to credit. One of the main objectives of the Women in Service Development Organization and Management group is to help facilitate access to credit for women, primarily women in rural areas as well as those in the informal economy. There are other organizations within the country that provide saving programs for women so that their hard earned money can accumulate over time. This is great! Women are not barred from creating their own businesses and even have access to credit to make their dreams a reality.

However, the results are not so great in terms of access to land. Under Shari’a law, which applies to 90% of the population, women do not have property rights. In fact, women are only guaranteed land access through their marriage status and are only entitled to borrow the land from their husbands. In the event of a divorce, the woman gives up the land she has been working on and is forced to return back to her family in order to seek land she can cultivate.

On top of this, a woman does not necessarily have the right to plant what she desires. The Gambian report on Gender and Land Rights by the Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations states, “In many villages, women and borrowers are prohibited from planting trees on the land they cultivate and, in case it is not forbidden, they must receive approval from the landowner before doing so. This is because tree planting is associated with permanent land rights since trees are regarded as the property of those who plant them.” What can women plant then? Rural women, who mostly work in the lowlands, grow vegetable gardens and rice while the men work in the uplands grow mostly grains and groundnuts. The FAO report further states that “although rural women work twice as much as men, on average, their access to means of production and training is negligible and inequality regarding land ownership in rural areas is pervasive.” Women need access to training as much as men do and would benefit from more programs directed towards successful farming techniques.

Because Shari’a law is the customary law regarding land inheritance, women cannot inherit property from their husband. In the FAO report, we learn that “under customary law, a wife is not entitled to the property of her husband unless – and until – she agrees to let herself be inherited by the husband’s family. In effect, such women are treated as a form of property to be inherited along with the rest of their husbands’ assets.” Even though a woman would be able to use the land from her deceased husband, she can do this only to the extent that she is willing to recognize in front of her extended family that she is basically of no worth and is merely property of the family. Of course this is not true and there is more value in a woman than just as a means of production. However, because women do not share full equality with men, they are relegated to a position of inferiority which persists as each woman has to deny her self-worth in order to borrow land to cultivate to ensure her own survival.

This tradition of inequality will never be broken so long as these inequitable traditions persist. Maybe as women start gaining more and more access to credit and start their own successful businesses, community members, and most importantly their husbands, will start realizing the worth of women which will cause some of these harmful practices to cease.

[Gambia report on Gender and Land Rights by the Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations: http://www.fao.org/gender/landrights/report/#bib_country_id=62 ]

—by JH

2 thoughts on “Women’s Property Law in Gambia

  1. GoodReason says:

    The woman has to agreed to be inherited by her husband’s family or she cannot inherit as a widow?? Wow. And I had no idea that 90% of the Gambian population was under sharia law. Thanks so much for sharing this information with us!

  2. SMS says:

    The status of women is so precarious in so many countries. You would think that simple self-interest would help improve things. The planting of trees example caught my attention. Planting trees on land helps insure access to fruit, firewood, shade, and building materials. It help limit run-off, reduces the effects of flooding, reduces soil degradation and degeneration, which all lead to improved water quality. Which in turn leads to better community health.

    The simple act of planting trees could positively affect countless lives. And yet that is prevented because of the cultural belief in the inferior status of women and an obsession with keeping them physically, economically, emotionally, and even symbolically dependent on the men. Whether they know it or not their society is reaping the reward for their shortsightedness. It is tragic that so many have to suffer to prop up the male ego.

    Thanks for sharing it with us.

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