Grassroots Spotlight | Fati Al Hassan, GSF
Fati Al Hassan hasn't stopped taking on challenges.
As she prepares to travel to New York this month to participate in the fifty-sixth session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), she continues to break new ground in her work at home in Ghana. Fati is the Executive Director of the Grassroots Sisterhood Foundation (GSF), an organization dedicated to supporting networks of grassroots women across three regions of northern Ghana.
The grassroots leader has high aspirations for the CSW-- a global policy-making body promoting gender equality and advancement of women-- especially given this year's emphasis on the empowerment of rural women. The women of GSF come primarily from rural areas of Ghana, and Fati hopes their unique challenges as rural women will take center stage during the CSW panels and side and parallel events in New York.
TRANSFORMING POWER RELATIONS
Over the past six years, GSF has been working with tremendous success to challenge gender dynamics while working within customary systems to claim land for grassroots women. In northern Ghana, discriminatory property laws and practices prevent most women from owning land. As GSF board member Chief Issahaku Amadu Alhassan (no relation) states, "If you are a woman buying land, you have to go with a man. If you don't have a husband you go with another man as security, because without a man attached to you, you are a 'doubtful' grantee." Furthermore, the perceived inferior social status of women can exclude them from community discussions on land and other critical issues that impact their lives.
However, the Grassroots Sisterhood Foundation is transforming this social dynamic in more than thirty communities where it is active. GSF actively supports community women's groups in each of these communities by visiting regularly and organizing trainings and capacity building workshops. In addition to advocating for women's land claims, GSF provides support to a network of home-based caregivers. These caregivers belong to the Home-Based Care Alliance (HBCA), a bottom-up federation of grassroots home-based caregivers operating in twelve countries across Africa.
Through persistent dialogue with traditional authorities, GSF has successfully persuaded chiefs in several communities to grant land to women. Not only have women secured land for houses, a market and a women's center, but female participation in community decision-making processes has increased dramatically in certain communities. As Amina Salifu (below photo: fourth from right), a women's leader in the Sanzirgu community in the Northern Region of Ghana, describes it, "Women are now included in community discussions," an accomplishment unheard of in previous years.
Fati credits community women with this change. As she explains it, women have driven the process of social change as they have gained confidence and become more comfortable speaking out in their communities. "When we got into [the community, Sanzirgu] the women could not even go into the chief's palace to talk. But now we walk into the chief's palace with them...they can speak to issues and take decisions as to what they want to be done for them."
Photo right: Sanzirgu community, northern Ghana
Continued from Huairou Update...
Incidentally, these very successes have created new challenges for GSF. Now that women have successfully claimed land, they must take the next step in building community structures, managing farmland and registering their land. At stake are their sister community women, whose land claims are in danger of being rejected if a chief sees that women in a neighboring community have failed to use the land given to them. Even a chief who has given land could be tempted by rising land prices to go back on his word if there is no development of the land he has given to the women. Thus, formal registration is critical to ensuring that land can never be taken away from its female owner.
Photo right: Chief Issahaku Amadu Alhassan
The issues of land registration and titling weigh heavy on Fati's mind. In northern Ghana the expense of registration can be a huge obstacle. Mumunatu Alhassan, another Sanzirgu women's leader, presented the example of a woman in her community who recently paid 700 Ghana Cedis (approximately $400 USD) for a plot of land. On top of this expense, she is now working to pay an additional 400 Cedis in fees necessary for proper documentation.
Formal land registration is also hugely important for securing loans. Though many community women are already participating in microcredit schemes, their ability to hold land as collateral would significantly increase their access to credit.
The Grassroots Sisterhood Foundation is actively working to meet these new demands. To prevent land claim reversals, for instance, they are continuing their advocacy work with the chiefs. Additionally, GSF plans to facilitate fundraising for proposed community buildings and farm equipment.
Amidst all of these challenges, Fati remains deeply proud of the changes she has seen so far in communities in which GSF is active. As she says, "I wake up in the morning, happy, knowing that the women have come from not being able to speak to being able to speak. That is my joy."
THE NEXT GENERATION
Fati is sharing this joy with the next generation of grassroots women's advocates. The small but bustling office of GSF's headquarters in Tamale exudes youthful enthusiasm. Some of this energy comes from three young women in the office: Finance Officer Salma Alhassan and Project Officers Sophia Owusu and Jacqueline Jemilatu Abu. Sophia and Jacqueline are currently participating in Ghana's National Service Scheme, a mandatory one-year service program required for all Ghanaian university graduates. Both are recent grads of Ghana's University for Development Studies (UDS), which emphasizes a "pro-poor" educational approach and requires three community practicums. Although National Service personnel are generally placed with government departments, Sophia and Jacqueline both petitioned to spend their year working at GSF instead.
Photo right: from left to right, Theresa Ayerebi, Sophia Owusu, Fati Al Hassan, Jacqueline Jemilatu Abu and Salma Alhassan
In four months on the job, Jacqueline has learned firsthand by watching grassroots women respond to their own problems. "They get the voice to talk, they control their lives. Issues are not imposed on them; they stand up for their rights."
As a mentor figure, Fati provides not only job training, but also inspiration as she models inclusive decision making. "Everything that comes up she discusses with us before making a decision," says Sophia. "Fati has a listening ear," adds Mr. Alhassan, "She will listen, take the advice and then work with it."
LOOKING FORWARD TO THE CSW
All of these projects-land claims, the challenges of titling and registration, and supporting home-based caregivers-will be on Fati's mind as she prepares for her trip to New York for the upcoming Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). On February 28, Fati will speak on a panel featuring caregivers sharing their success stories and recommendations for investing in organized groups of rural women to create vibrant communities led by empowered women. She will also be contributing during the Grassroots Women's Solutions for Empowerment, Sustainable Livelihood and Land Justice panel from 6:30 to 7:45 pm on February 28.
In addition to sharing stories from GSF communities, Fati hopes she can learn from other CSW participants and come up with strategies to build on the successes GSF has had so far. As she phrases it, "I want to come back here with a plan that will improve, that will empower, that will enhance the power relations at the rural level."
Photo Right: Mumunatu Alhassan (bottom left) talks to Fati in the community of Sanzirgu