by Ali Kaba, Program Director for the Community Land Protection Programme, Sustainable Development Institute, Liberia
Women in Liberia rely heavily on land to support their agricultural livelihoods, yet remain disproportionately marginalized in their access to land ownership.
Such gender-based differences exist due to longstanding power imbalances in traditional practices, inadequacies in statutory laws, and a failure by society to enforce policies and laws that were around to protect women’s land rights.
As Liberia moves forward with new policies and policy aspirations – i.e. the Agenda for Transformation, National Vision, The Decentralization Policy, the Strategic Roadmap for National Healing, Peace-building and Reconciliation, and the Land Rights Policy – attention must be spent on how these laws will impact women. Specifically, these laws should focus significant efforts towards increasing gender equity in land tenure. The Land Rights Policy makes one such attempt, and may be a pivotal trigger towards transforming the lives of women in Liberia.
The Land Rights Policy
The Land Rights Policy (LRP) is a progressive step towards empowering all of Liberia’s citizens in the ownership of their lands. Most notably, this policy provides formal ownership rights for communities living on customary lands, which are defined as, “Land owned by a community and used and managed in accordance with customary practices and norms” (LRP, 2013). This is the first policy of its kind in Liberia to recognize customary ownership as a legitimate and equal to private land claims. While the LRP makes great preliminary attempts towards addressing land tenure reform, special attention should now be spent on how its recommendations will help protect and enhance women’s rights to land and natural resources.
Specifically, the policy recommendations around customary land tenure may leave some women unprotected, as customary norms around land inheritance often leave women at a disadvantage. For example, if a woman’s husband dies and they jointly planted a rubber farm, “she could not claim the land if she did not have children by the man… Even if you and the man had farmed on it before his death, the relatives of the man will not allow you to have it,” said a female Town Chief in Liberia. Similarly, if a woman and man divorce, the woman may not be entitled to the land or trees the couple owned while together.
Alleviating Rural Poverty
Land tenure is a vital component towards alleviating rural poverty and food insecurity in Liberia. Over 40 percent of the country relies on subsistence agriculture for their livelihoods and women make up a large proportion of this number. Without secure tenure, women risk losing their land, and remain vulnerable to increased poverty and food insecurity. As stated by a female resident in Rivercess County, “Before, I did not know I had land right as a woman and someone could just take my land and there was nothing I could do. Today, thank God; because of NGOs training activities on community land protection in our community I am planting life tree (rubber and plantain).” Secure land rights would also enable women to invest in permanent agricultural technologies such as tree crops and animal husbandry. As official landowners, furthermore, women may be more confident and empowered to participate in economic and political decision-making processes in their communities, and the nation as a whole.
As Liberia proceeds with social, economic, and political reforms, greater attention is now needed on how these policy recommendations will impact and benefit women. By proactively asserting women’s land rights in the land laws, Liberian women – almost 50 percent of the population – will have the opportunity to participate and contribute to the country’s development. It is therefore of great importance that policy instruments are developed into workable laws that would help promote the rights of women to own, inherit, and govern land.
The Sustainable Development Institute Liberia (SDI) (www.sdialiberia.org) is a nonprofit that works to transform decision-making processes of natural resource management so the benefits are shared equally. SDI is working in partnership with Namati on a joint Community Land Protection Program in Liberia. Namati (www.namati.org) is a global network dedicated to putting the law in peoples’ hands.