Land is power: How land rights can enfranchise Liberia’s women

Friday, 8 March 2019 09:40 GMT

Women from a evangelical Christian community locally referred to as "prayer warriors" celebrate after the WHO declared the country Ebola-free in Monrovia, Liberia, May 9, 2015. REUTERS/James Giahyue

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Liberia is in the throes of finalising one of Africa’s most progressive land rights laws but its potential will be thwarted if women are excluded

In the 42-year history of International Women’s Day, there have been huge advances in women’s rights across the world. But despite these strides, many are still fighting for basic human rights, including to life and security.

This is certainly true in my country, Liberia.

In 2018, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) ranked Liberia 155th out of 160 countries on gender equality, based on reproductive health, empowerment and economic activity. But this appalling statistic is not because women aren’t trying to make a change. 

We built a movement for peace during the country’s 14-year civil war and served as caregivers on the frontline of the Ebola crisis in 2014-2015. We campaigned for Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, Africa’s first democratically elected female president, whose election could have been a turning point for gender equality.

So why are Liberian women still fighting for power? In Liberia, power is tied to land.

LIMITED LAND RIGHTS

Agriculture and forestry are the engines of Liberia’s economy, contributing around 40 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. Yet, while 80 percent of agricultural workers and a fifth of forestry labourers are women, their access to and control of land is limited. 

In 2006, the Liberian Legislature voted in the Community Rights Law, which established a process for communities to collectively own land.

While that law was a crucial moment for community rights, the freedoms that came with it were only accessible to men.

Since rural communities traditionally only involve men in decisions around land, women have been left landless and excluded from decision-making structures. 

My organisation, Foundations for Community Initiatives (FCI), an NGO based in Liberia’s capital, is working to change that. FCI was founded in 2004 and is focused on integrating women into leadership positions and promoting women-centred community-based initiatives around natural resource rights.

Over the last decade, we have worked with the government and other NGOs to develop a law that addresses women’s land rights. This work culminated in September 2018 when President George Weah signed a new Land Rights Act into law.

The Act is one of the most progressive land rights laws in Africa and is the first Liberian law that recognises women’s rights to land.

Prior to this, women were considered outsiders to the communities that they married into and were rarely allowed to participate in decisions about land.

Although the 2003 Inheritance Law defined some land rights for married women (granting them just a third of their husband’s property post-mortem), married women had no land rights outside of inheritance and unmarried women were not able to own land privately or collectively. 

In practice, this means that unmarried women - who represent 62 percent of Liberian women - can’t own land or have their own house and often have to squat with their families. These women are often unpaid labourers within their families, having to tend to the land and take care of relatives at the same time - yet they can’t own or make decisions about the very land they stand on.

With the passage of the Land Rights Act, women are defined as part of their community, able to participate in land governance decisions and management bodies, and all women, married or not, are able to own land privately, jointly and collectively.

SUPPORT NEEDED

This is a big step towards equality, but women’s rights are still at stake.

Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world and the law’s success is dependent on its enforcement and implementation in an area where state institutions are weak.

The Liberian government needs donor and NGO support to ensure that this revolutionary law achieves its potential, because it relies on transforming gender norms.

Traditional and cultural practices have often marginalised and excluded women, so communities need increased skills and awareness to become agents of change.

At FCI, I educate women, men, and youth about this law. Our training builds awareness about the law and increase women’s confidence and ability to participate in decision-making processes.

This confidence building is essential.

While 73 percent of Liberian women are illiterate and therefore cannot read the Land Rights Act, you don’t need to be able to read the law to know your rights.

Women who believe that they can make decisions about land and understand the land rights this law gives them, can fight for land ownership.

Our training is slowly working towards these goals, but we need help from donors and the government in order to succeed. Laws are dependent on implementation - we need to ensure men aren’t allowed to use loopholes to avoid behaviour change.

FCI will work with the community committees to develop bylaws that protect women, but these bylaws will be unenforceable if the government does not develop further regulations to support them.

Right now, Liberia’s Land Authority is defining the regulations that will govern implementation of this law. They must strengthen and uphold the Land Rights Act, showcasing that we can achieve gender equality by guaranteeing women’s land rights, in Liberia and worldwide. 

After all, land is power. 

Loretta Alethea Pope Kai is Programme Director at Foundations for Community Initiatives, an NGO in Monrovia, Liberia