Ensuring Secure Land Tenure for Women beyond Customary Land Rights in Liberia

By Gmasonah Togba-Aboah

“Improving women’s land rights beyond access and use brings about agricultural productivity, increased food security that leads to zero hunger, poverty reduction, a healthy society, education for all and the nation’s sustained social and economic development.”

Historically, Liberia’s land sector is marred by several issues not limited to the following:

  • lack of tenure security
  • unequal treatment of land held under the public and land held under rural/customary communities
  • poor coordination and fragmented land administration and management institutions leading to poor land services delivery
  • inadequate recording of land records making it difficult to track land sales
  • destruction of deeds and deeds records and databases
  • rights to access and use of natural resources
  • a persistent state of tenure insecurity for minerals, forest, and water
  • ambiguous and overlapping legislations, and
  • conflicting tenure arrangements and constant clashes of customary and statutory rights over management of these resources.

These are just a few of the issues that have led to land disputes across the country, ranging from individuals and family land disputes, encroachment, and boundary disputes among towns, clans, chiefdoms, counties and etc.

In 2013, the People and President of Liberia approved and endorsed a national Land Rights Policy (LRP) for Liberia. The LRP put land into four categories in Liberia: Government; Public; Private; and the newest, Customary. This put customary land on par with private land for the first time in the country. In 2014, the Proposed Land Rights Law was submitted to the Legislatures by the President. The House of Representatives passed the law in 2017 and forwarded it to the Senate for passage after making some major amendments that are currently being debated by civil society organizations and individuals across the country.

If the proposed Land Rights Act is passed into law by the Senate as it is, Customary Land will be equal to Private Land in Liberia. I know the drafter of this law desired that the law when enacted would promote gender equality and women’s empowerment, which could promote peace across the country and help Liberia make progress toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)This will not be feasible, however, due to following:

  1. Even though the Act treats Customary Land as private land upon the passage of the LRA, let us remember that it will be held under communal ownership;
  2. Customary lands held under communal ownership have and will be administered and managed according to customary norms and practices that only recognize men as head of family and decision-makers regarding land. The proposed Land Rights Law is not likely to change this as it requires that only one person on the CLDMC be a woman.
  1. Women in customary/rural communities will still have to access and use land through the approval of their husband, brother, uncle or male counterpart. This means that women’s land rights under this arrangement will not be secured;
  1. Even though the proposed LRA says that each resident within a customary community is entitled to one acre of land for homes upon the  passage of the Act, we all know that most residents who are heads of household are men so most of the land will be deeded or documented in the husband’s/male’s name, meaning that the wife will still not have equal rights to that land as compared to her husband whose name bears the deed/document. The man would still have the power to make decisions regarding access, use, transfer and etc.

This is especially important because the Act provides that these household parcels would be allocated in private ownership, meaning that for the first time community members could legally sell or lease their land out. If the wife’s name is not on the deed/document, it would be much easier for the husband to sell the land without consulting her or sharing with her the proceeds from any land transactions.

With all of the above, the LRA does not seem to be any silver bullet for strengthening women’s land rights in customary communities, despite what many seem to think, and may actually weaken them.

Because of the above, one can say that achieving secure women’s land rights faces a daunting path.

Another important point is that the law indicates that communities will self-identify, establish a legal entity, agree on their boundaries with their neighbors, and establish by-laws to govern and manage their land to enable them to exercise the full bundles of rights. This means that by-laws should spell out clearly the rights of a wife (including in polygamous situations), a daughter, single women, and sons under a communal and resident’s rights respectively of land in a  customary/rural communities land rights arrangement.

How sure are we that individual women and land rights will be captured in these by-laws that will be developed by rural communities where males’ rights are dominant? A massive sensitization campaign will be needed.

If gender equity and women’s empowerment that are tied to SDGs 1, 2, 5 and 10 mentioned above are to be achieved in Liberia, the Liberian legislatures must pass a Land Rights Law that clearly supports women’s land rights within customary/communal land rights in rural communities by ensuring that women’s names are included on whatever document/deed will be given to residents.  CSOs, CBOs and NGOs who will be responsible to facilitate rural communities through the process must empower communities with information through robust awareness and an inclusive participatory process. At the same time, rural communities who desire to be land owning communities are to ensure that the land rights of their grandmothers, mothers, sisters, daughters, nieces and aunties are secured under customary/communal land rights by developing gender sensitive by-laws.  We also encourage our Partners and Donors to support policies, laws and regulations that are gender sensitive.

Gmasonah Togba-Aboah, Customary Land Rights Officer, Liberia Land Authority, is a member of Landesa’s Visiting Professionals Women’s Land Rights Network.