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Monday, October 18, 2021

Rural poverty in The Gambia

The most vulnerable groups in the rural parts of The Gambia are women, children and the elderly, as well as ethnic minorities who live in remote areas. The majority of these women continue to play a subservient role. Despite being the hardest hit, they contribute to the well-being of their families and the development of rural economies. 

And despite their efforts in providing food for their family, they have little or no say in the way the family spends its income. Women form more than 50 percent of the Gambian population and yet they are the poorest. 

Like women all over the world, most Gambian women must work as a matter of economic necessity, combining motherhood and child care with labour in the fields, or working as household domestic, market vendors and traders. 

The Gambia remains predominantly agricultural. The increasing migration of rural male labourers to urban areas has sharply extended the feminisation of rural labour and agriculture. Subsistence farming is largely a female activity owing to the historical migration of men to the towns. This is a trend that is still going on. Like in many of the world’s poorer countries, these women play a vital role in the rural economy. They are involved in crop production and livestock care, provide food and water for their families, and carry out other activities to diversify their families’ livelihood. 

In rural Gambia, rural women work on the land for family survival with little security and yet ownership of land is concentrated in the hands of a few families. The working conditions are tough for these women. They spend several hours walking to the field and by the time they get to the farms, they are exhausted. They grow crops for their families, some of which they sell locally to pay school fees, purchase school uniforms and nappies for their babies. It is worse if a woman is divorced and chased away from her husband’s land. In most cases, their own families do not want to see them or lodge them. Their families and friends coaxed them to return and make their marriage work. 

Despite the poverty rate of these women, they still rely on agriculture for most of their income. The rural economy, in turn, depends mainly on smallholder farming, which produces the majority of The Gambia’s agricultural output. Poverty and food insecurity of these women is national concern and should be addressed. The Gambia has though made some notable improvements in promoting gender equity in recent times. Nonetheless, the reality remains that majority of Gambian women in general and rural women in particular,  continue to play a subservient role. 

Their situation remains precarious – scratching poor quality soil with crude tools or bare hands in some instances for the survival of their families, yet they are considered second class family members. They are often battered and received barking orders to be served meals and provided other services as if they are slaves, not intimate partners. 

Today, October 15 marks International Day of Rural Women, which recognises the contributions and critical role of rural women, including indigenous women, in “enhancing agricultural and rural development, improving food security, and eradicating rural poverty”. To raise the profile of rural women, sensitise government on the crucial roles, and fight inequality and prejudices against rural women, the UN honours the roles of rural women on this day – a day before World Food Day – 16 October because of their key role in food production. It is a day that offers the world the opportunity to reflect on the status of women, with the objectives of highlighting their contributions, achievements as well as their limitations in terms of promotion of gender equality and empowerment at all levels.

On this day, we should all recognise the fundamental role Gambian women play in the rural economies of our great country. Rural women deserve more than simple recognition. They deserve better.

With little income, poverty remains primarily a rural phenomenon. The poorest rural households tend to derive a large share of their income from agricultural activities, which often show low levels of productivity. Rural women are vulnerable as well, because they do not have equal access to social and economic assets; subsistence farming is the primary source of livelihood for most of these women. Yet women and young people have great potential for contributing to economic development and social progress if they are able to fulfill their potential. Rural poverty in The Gambia is also strongly linked to economic concerns.

The main causes and characteristics of rural poverty vary in the different provinces. They include: remote locations with poor community infrastructure and services  such as paved roads, markets and safe drinking water; lack of skills and capacity, and a disproportionate incidence of illiteracy and poor skills among women, limited access to inputs, financial services, markets and value chains and reliance on traditional farming techniques. Married women in the communal lands only have secondary land use rights through their husbands. Single women find that preference is given to their brothers, while divorced women are forced to leave their lands with no guarantee that they will have access to the land in their own areas. And these widows may be evicted from the land they have worked on for years by male relatives of their husbands.

The Gambia government prides itself on promoting women’s right. Yes, I recognise the achievements of the government regarding women’s welfare regardless of ethnic, economic or political status. But more investment in improving the lives of rural women could create a springboard for better education, improved health, better farming mechanism and higher income.

Neglecting these small-scale farmers with limited extension support, inadequate access to production inputs, and poor access to markets operating, would worsen the situation of hungry people which will result in absolute poverty. Increasing rural women’s agricultural production and participation in the labour force would help reduce poverty among women and stimulate economic growth. 

In 2010, when I travelled to Brikamaba for the Rural Women’s Day celebrations some of the women raised alarm about the life challenges. The rural women pointed out that despite their efforts in providing food for their families, they have little or no say in the way the family spends its income.

Some said they depend on men for access to farm lands, which are sometimes of poor quality. Fertilisers and tractors they said are given to men who plough all their farms before considering those of the women. As of today these women remain in the same situation. They said no action has been taken to change the status quo.

I think the government should double its efforts to advance conditions for women in their various villages. If these women have access to tractors, fertilisers to maximise their production, they could help in reducing rising hunger and women poverty in The Gambia.

Action Aid International’s Hunger FREE Scorecard, which was launched in Brikamaba on the celebration of International Rural Women’s Day in 2010 said The Gambia is among 20 out of 28 developing countries without possibility of meeting fulfilling its promise in meeting Millennium Development Goal 1 of halving hunger by 2015.

Back in the urban areas, women from nearby villages spend the whole day at various markets under hot burning sun to make sure that they meet the needs of their families. These women spend all day in the market to put bread on the table amid the steady skyrocketing of food prices in the country. And these women are excellent and I admire their commitment and dedication to insuring the wellbeing of their families. 

Being economically independent played an important part in the choices women make.  If a woman has a job and has that level of independence, she is more likely to make decisions consistent with her interest than if she is dependent on the flow of income from a man. For women without other sources of income, their decisions are influence by the man. 


Binta Bah is the chief legal reporter of The Standard newspaper.


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