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. 

Land is Power 

Pope Kai is all too familiar with such tales. 

“Land is power, and men love power,” she says. “Although women are the primary users of forests, it is men who have always made the decisions about them.” 

While the 2003 Inheritance Law defined some land rights for married women (granting them just a third of their husband’s property after death, married women still 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 per cent of Liberian women - can’t own land or have their own house. This often leaves them having 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. 

“In rural communities, women are seen as properties because when they marry, the husband pays a dowry, which means they buy the woman from their family and the woman becomes the husband’s possession. As properties themselves, the wives cannot own a property,” explains Pope Kai. 

Liberia may have elected Africa’s first female head of state in Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, but evidence is everywhere of the barriers that women face. 

Agriculture and forestry are cornerstones of Liberia’s economy, generating around 40 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Yet despite 80 per cent of agricultural workers and a fifth of forestry labourers being women, they have little control over land. 

This mirrors women’s position in society more generally: 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.  

It would be a mistake, however, to see women’s predicament in Liberia as an aberration: according to studies, nearly half of the world’s smallholder farmers are women, yet they own less than 20 per cent of the world’s land. 

Empowering women 

Growing up in Monrovia with two brothers, Pope Kai was acutely aware of gender disparities. 

In a nation where only 27 per cent of women are literate, compared to 60 per cent of men, she says she was lucky that her parents were able to support and encourage her education. 

“Most of my [female] peers were not able to complete their schooling, because their parents either didn’t have the finances or didn’t support them. Because of this I grew up with a passion to mentor other young women and advocate for their rights.” 

Today, as Programme Director at FCI, which is based in Monrovia, Pope Kai is doing just this. 

Her work focusses on increasing women’s confidence and their ability to participate in decision-making processes. A key aspect of this is educating women (as well as men and younger people) on the law - and in particular the Land Rights Act which President George Weah signed in September 2018. 

A revolutionary Act 

The Act, which is the first Liberian law to recognise women’s rights to land, is one of Africa’s most progressive land rights laws. 

Under it, women are defined as part of their community, and are able to participate in how land is managed and run. Land can now be owned privately, jointly and collectively by management bodies, and all women, married or not. 

It’s not hyperbole to say that it has the potential to fundamentally alter Liberian women’s life prospects and create a more just power balance between the country’s men and women. 

“This is a big step towards equality, but having the law is nothing if it isn’t implemented properly,” says Kai Pope. 

If its potential is realised, then all Liberians will benefit. 

A 2011 report by the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation outlined the immense wider gains that closing the gender gap in agriculture can bring, stating: “If women in rural areas had the same access to land, technology, financial services, education and markets as men, agricultural production could be increased and the number of hungry people reduced by 100-150 million.” 

The women of Gbonyea are only too willing to play their part in transforming their own society. 

Also find "This Land is Ours" in the Our Forests Our Lives report. 

Alexandra Benjamin is a Development Aid Campaigner at Fern. 

(c) Photos by Alexandra Benjamin 

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