Securing land rights for women in The Gambia

Bridging knowledge gaps between customary and legal tenure systems
Masaka farmers group Basketry. Photo by John Baptist Wandera/CIFOR

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Land ownership in The Gambia is a complicated issue. It lives at the intersection of traditional customs, legal processes, competing needs, and momentum from the public sector and local NGOs towards more equitable governance. 

Many women face significant disadvantages in owning land due to long-standing customs that govern land distribution within Indigenous communities. As such, the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) is collaborating with a consortium of partners on an International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)-led project to help enhance rural women’s land rights and gender equality in the country.

Traditionally in The Gambia, village leaders (known as Alkalou) allocate land to the (usually male) heads of individual families, who in turn parcel this out between their members. This often results in women being assigned small, unproductive plots – and risking having these allocated to other family members, too. Reallocation often happens when another family member wishes to use a productive parcel of land, and since women have limited decision-making power at both the household and community levels, they have little to no input in the outcome. This discourages women from investing in long-term, higher-value crops such as agroforestry to increase their income, as it could lead to the loss of their land once these plantings become productive.

The Resilience of Organizations for Transformative Smallholder Agriculture Programme (ROOTS) is an IFAD-led initiative implementing the Gender Action Learning Systems (GALS) methodology to facilitate joint household decision-making along rice and horticulture value chains in The Gambia. Participants create joint ‘vision journeys’ within their households and receive support while they carry out the necessary steps to reach their goals. ROOTS also supports food and livelihood initiatives in the project communities by supporting the implementation of women’s gardens, which are legally registered in the name of the garden groups. Each member is allotted several plots to grow food for sale at local markets.

The approach has garnered a lot of positive feedback from pilot communities since the project’s inception in 2019. But the programme has its limitations. Growing populations mean there is a decreasing amount of land available for the garden groups, and membership of such groups is limited. Additionally, the GALS methodology does not have a specific focus on land tenure, so knowledge and capacity gaps make it difficult for women to branch out and seek secure land rights on their terms. 

As such, to expand on the programme’s success and seek broader change in terms of land ownership and control in The Gambia, IFAD and its partners have now integrated ROOTS into its Global Initiative for Securing Women’s Resource Rights through Gender Transformative Approaches (GTAs). The initiative is currently piloting GTAs in six countries – Colombia, Uganda, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Kyrgyzstan, and The Gambia – to advance the recognition and protection of women’s land rights by improving policies, implementation tools and practices. 

This work requires rigorous analysis of the socio-economic context to effectively address the root causes of gender inequality and women’s powerlessness, which is initiated by examining gender relations across five dimensions: legal aspects, cultural norms, perceptions, socio-economic conditions, and political participation. The process identifies both obstacles for IFAD and entry points for their pilots. By conducting comparative research using a contextual application of the gender analysis protocols, IFAD can better understand the gender dynamics in different settings and design gender-transformative interventions accordingly. 

To carry out this process in The Gambia’s context, The ROOTS project leads alongside partners at The Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) conducted a gender analysis following a socio-legal review of existing land governance as it relates to women. The analysis was based on focus group discussions and interviews with community leaders in four ROOTS communities, which were chosen based on their unique characteristics and representation of different regions across the country. The data was collected in late 2022 and was supplemented with interviews with project staff, and fine-tuned through a scoping and validation mission conducted in February 2023. 

The results revealed increasing pressure from competing land uses, particularly near urban areas. It found that acceptance of women’s rights to own land is growing, but that conservative values still prevail in isolated communities and peri-urban areas. It also found that Gambian law grants women equal land ownership rights, but customary practices and legal systems overlap, causing confusion. On one hand, rural communities still rely on the Alkalou to determine land ownership, leading to women having little control over their family’s land. On the other, legal tenure overrides the traditional system, and a new Alkalou stamp can overwrite existing ownership rights – even for those who have been farming a particular plot for many years. 

A validation exercise carried out with women’s groups, in which they ranked challenges to their legal ownership of land, highlighted considerable variability between communities, but also underlined some common concerns regarding a lack of capital and inputs to make land productive and useful for them. Women considered these issues to be more relevant than land ownership, in part because the main way people demonstrate such ownership in their communities is by making use of it through production, planting trees, or construction.

Drawing from this feedback, the GTA pilots will apply an adaptive lens that considers the unique characteristics of each community, sub-culture, and context. The approach will facilitate a national multi-stakeholder platform that brings women farmers’ voices into policy dialogue and connects the efforts of NGOs and the public sector to advance women’s land rights. Scheduled for implementation across 2023, the pilots seek to support the governmental momentum already in place to support women’s land rights, by ensuring women can make active use of their rights without barriers.

A new land rights module is also being designed for incorporation into the GALS process by pilot-partner the Female Lawyers Association of The Gambia (FLAG) as a means to increase awareness among rural women of their rights as landowners, and the ROOTS project team is receiving gender training to help them engage effectively with communities on women’s land ownership issues.

For more information, please contact Anne Larson ( or Sabrina Trautman (

This research is part of our work on Securing Women’s Resource Rights through Gender-Transformative approaches. In 2020, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) invited a consortium of the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry Centre (CIFOR-ICRAF), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) to work with selected IFAD projects to promote and strengthen women’s land rights through the integration of gender transformative approaches (GTAs) in rural development interventions by improving policies, tools and practices. 

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