In Niger, climate change is having a significant impact on rural communities and their ability to grow enough food to feed their families and earn a living. Yet, just as the country’s droughts worsen, an increasing number of women are being excluded from farming, making food production harder still. Here Alima Mamadou, technical assistant for CARE Niger’s Women and Land Initiative, says getting women farming again is the key to building resilience to climate change.

Climate change is causing a wide range of problems in the Maradi region of southern Niger. Whether more extreme weather, less predictable seasons or severe heat and drought, people are increasingly feeling the impact of climate change on their traditional ways of life. This has serious implications for the many, many rural households who rely on agriculture for their survival. In fact, recent figures show between 10 to 15 percent of Maradi’s children under five are suffering from acute malnutrition. This isn’t caused by climate change alone, but by a combination of factors including high levels of poverty, deforestation, soil erosion, overgrazing and lack of access to markets. On top of this, Maradi has one of the fastest growing populations in the country which has led to even more land degradation, and declining crop yields.

In Maradi, women have traditionally been the pillars of food security and nutrition, making sure their families have enough to eat even when times are tough and harvests fail. When women are working the land, they produce crops like beans, groundnuts, millet and sorghum which can be sold for profit and provide an excellent source of nutrition. And they grow things like moringa so the leaves can be kept to eat during the ‘lean’ seasons when food is less plentiful. All of this is important as serious droughts are now occurring in Niger about 1 out of every 3 years. But here’s the problem: women are increasingly being prevented from engaging in farming activities, or excluded altogether, and this has serious consequences for food and nutrition security in this part of Niger.

This is happening due to cultural practices and the competition for land in the Maradi region. As more and more people arrive, less and less land is available on which to grow crops. In turn, this puts pressure on the land rights of the most vulnerable people, particularly on women. Although there are laws that give women rights to land, they are not always adhered to and can even be contradictory. The other reason is ‘kubli’. This is where landless young women live in seclusion and can only leave their homes with the permission of their husband. Though this used to be more common in wealthy households, it has spread to poor households too. The result? Women are prevented from generating an income from the land – and are finding it increasingly hard to ensure their families are well fed and nourished. On top of this, they are often given the worst pieces of land and, because of their lack of income, also find it hard to buy the modern technology and equipment needed to cultivate it.

As part of the Women and Land Initiative, CARE Niger has been working with 3000 women in 30 communities across six municipalities of southern Maradi to tackle these very issues. Most of the women we have been working with do not have access to land and so are also finding it hard to feed their families. Using a rights-based approach, based on the inclusion of vulnerable women, the participation of marginalised women in community decision-making and gender equality and equity for access and control over resources (such as land), the women in these communities have made real strides forward.

The Women and Land Initiative focuses on changing people’s minds on women’s rights to land. That’s why we have been busy running awareness raising campaigns and ensuring we get the vital backing of local leaders. There have been performances of short dramas about women’s rights to land by inheritance, debates involving lawyers, radio broadcasts, question and answer sessions, sermons from religious leaders, meetings with state officials and announcements by important figures publicly committing their support for women’s access to land. All of this contributes to the vital goal of improving local food security by ensuring women can play a role in producing food by ensuring they have fair access to land.

During the course of the initiative, we’ve learnt that dialogues about land rights and food security also lead to important discussions about women’s rights in general. We’ve learnt about the importance of drama in talking about rights. We’ve learnt that a rights-based approach increases communities’ resilience to food insecurity caused by climate change. We’ve learnt that engaging local leaders is essential in changing attitudes to women’s rights. And, crucially, that women farmers need just as much support once they have gained access to land, including better farming techniques and access to new technologies. That’s when you achieve resilience.