Women in Sierra Leone: Resisting Dispossession

First Phase Digital

Women are losing their land and livelihoods in the face of land grabs, discriminatory traditions and customs, and the lack of a strong legal framework.

Ya Marie had always used part of her family’s land in the village of Mara in northern Sierra Leone to farm and support her family. Although she did not have legal title to the land, there was a general understanding with her male relatives that she owned the land she was cultivating. However, four years ago, when Swiss bio-energy company Addax Bioenergy came to Ya Marie’s region, her male relatives leased the farmland to the company without her consent. She was excluded from all the negotiations and refused her share of the payment. Ya Marie’s plight is not an isolated case as a growing number of women in Sierra Leone are increasingly being dispossessed of land in the wake of large-scale land acquisitions.

Like other African countries, Sierra Leone has recently seen an influx of multinational corporations. In the past four years alone, more than 20 percent of the country’s total arable land has been granted to foreign investors on leases of fifty years (with possible extensions) for large-scale industrial agriculture. However, the government does not currently have a clear policy on land acquisitions, or sufficient provisions to protect women’s land rights.

These ‘land grabs’ are affecting women disproportionately as we are deprived of the livelihood we earn through small-scale agriculture. A recent study commissioned by a coalition of civil society groups also found that land grabs are contributing to an increase in the rate of gender-based violence as dispossession of land from women leaves them dependent on male relatives and more vulnerable to violence and sexual abuse.

In Sierra Leone, women represent between 60 to 80 percent of the agricultural labour force, and play an increasingly important role in natural resource management and food production. The number of women heading rural households is also increasing. Despite our critical role and contribution to agriculture, rural development, and food security, women across Sierra Leone are discriminated against in access to, ownership of, and control over land, as well as the income produced from it. Women’s ability to access land and to claim, use, and defend rights to land and other natural resources, is further weakened by our status within the household and community, as well as discriminatory customary and statutory laws which prioritise ownership and land rights to men, or to kinship groups controlled by men.

The need to secure land and property for women in Sierra Leone is crucial for the economic development of the country, as well as improving food security, increasing food sovereignty, and reducing poverty. Moreover, providing women with control over land is key in the fight against gender inequality and sexual violence. Our organisation, the Sierra Leone Network on the Right to Food (SiLNoRF), works in the north of the country where a number of multinational corporations are involved in mining and bio-fuel production. Our research and monitoring of the operations of one of the multinational companies, Addax Bioenergy Company (SL) Limited, has found widespread environmental and human rights abuses – including the lack of free, prior and informed consent, diversion of water sources and threats to food security.

Women are often sidelined in the land negotiation process, and the agreements signed do not take into consideration their specific needs – such as access to water sources and distance to farm sites and local markets. For example, the land lease agreement between Addax and local communities grants the company sweeping powers to stop or alter the course of any water course, and to have exclusive possession over villages, rivers, forests and other forms of the environment. In the past two years, the company has diverted and/or destroyed key water sources in a number of villages.

The pressure from local communities on the government and multinational corporations to adopt policies and practices that enhance women’s land rights has grown significantly. In the past two years, groups have successfully worked with local authorities to ensure that alternative lands are provided for women to continue their farming activities. Community groups have successfully pressed for the passage of local by-laws that protect women from violence. Although Sierra Leone has passed a number of progressive laws to protect women, implementation at the local level often remains a challenge. Therefore bye-laws passed in these communities help to localize national laws and give local ownership and responsibility in enforcing these laws. Examples include the prohibition of underage marriage, protection of land for women to do their farming, and a ban on these lands from been leased without the approval of the women using that particularly piece of land. Community land governance committees have also been formed which include women representatives, and have begun to map their lands in order to ensure that women’s access and ownership of land is secured at community level. Reflecting on the role of the land governance committees, one woman said, “it has given us women a space to participate in decision making processes that affect land use, and a voice to promote women’s land rights”

These strategies, together with regular radio discussion programmes hosted by SiLNoRF on women and land rights, are leading to a favourable shift in communities’ attitudes toward women’s ownership of land. For example, traditional leaders are now more likely to rule in favour of women in inheritance cases and land disputes, and kingship groups are increasingly involving women in land negotiations.

Despite these advances, huge challenges remain, including intimidation and threats of violence from government officials and multinational companies against our staff and community volunteers. Recently, staff and community members have been receiving threatening phone calls and text messages, and have been accused by government officials of undermining the country’s economic development.

The lack of a strong legal framework that supports women’s land ownership is another challenge. Speaking at in August 2013 at a conference organised by SiLNoRF, with support from the Fund for Global Human Rights and UNDP, the Mayor of Makeni, Sunkarie Kabba-Kamara noted that “discriminatory traditions and customs over the years have contributed to debarring women from owning land especially in the Northern region of the country. The situation of rural women in Sierra Leone is deplorable with little or no privileges to take active part in land negotiations”, and called on the policy makers to ensure the draft land policy “addresses the challenges faced by women in terms of accessing and owning land in rural Sierra Leone, as well as providing more space for women in governance and decision making processes”.

Given the role of custom in limiting women’s land rights in Sierra Leone, delegates developed a joint advocacy plan to press the government to amend all clauses that link women’s land rights to customary law and traditional practices. Delegates also called on the Government to “commit to changing not only the legal but also de facto discriminatory practices, and work towards removing all barriers hindering women’s access to equal rights”.

We believe that with the right policies and laws in place, more women like Ya Marie would be able to have secure ownership of land and challenge the unfair land deals that are dispossessing women of land and livelihoods all over the country.

Ya Marie did not win back her access to land, but she successfully pressed her male relatives to share part of the proceeds with her and now uses her share of the lease money to run a small business to look after her family.

by Mariama Tarawallie

This is an abridged version of an article originally published at opendemocracy.net. Read the full version here. Republished under a Creative Commons license.

Photograph courtesy of Africa Renewal, via Flickr. Also used under a Creative Commons license.

You must be logged in to post a comment