Lofa County, Liberia. Ten women are gathered in the open-air concrete slab building that serves as a community centre for Gbonyea, a village a few kilometres from Liberia’s border with Guinea, and five hours drive from the capital Monrovia.
Loretta Althea Pope Kai, the charismatic Programme Director for local NGO the Foundation for Community Initiatives (FCI), asks the women a series of questions, each one focussed on whether they own land. Virtually none of them do.
For around two hours, the women outline the challenges they face, and Pope Kai carefully steers them through their rights. As the meeting draws to a close, the group breaks into an impassioned rallying call: “We want land. We want land…”
Lofa county has vast swathes of fertile land, including rich, dense forest, and it was considered Liberia’s breadbasket before the country’s 14-year civil war, which affected this area more severely than any other in terms of population displacement and the destruction of infrastructure. Lofa was also the first county to be hit by the Ebola virus outbreak in March 2014.
Yet long predating these profound traumas is an injustice which has shaped the lives of women here, and across Liberia, for generations: the denial of their land rights. The reality of this becomes vividly clear straight after the meeting.
Along with three sisters who were among those attending, we take a short drive, followed by a ten-minute hike through trails which cut through the thickets of lush forest around Gbonyea. We stop at a clearing, and one of the sisters, Rita Massquio, explains: “This is our father’s land that was taken away from us.”
After their father died, the land should have passed to their brother under customary law - but he was too unwell to look after it. Now, she says, the community are denying them their land, and a local landlord’s son has planted rubber on it. “We don’t have nobody that can help us so that we can get our land back,” Massquio says.
The sisters’ story is echoed in the interviews we conduct with the women of Gbonyea.
We hear of the mother driven off her land by her brother. Of the woman who is precariously sustaining her family on land she doesn’t own. Of the daughter forced, along with her mother, off their land by her late father’s wife.