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A Legal Empowerment Approach to Achieving Women’s Land and Natural Resources Rights

When Namati’s Community Land Protection project in Sierra Leone’s Paki Massabong Chiefdom came to a close, a ‘handing over’ ceremony was held. Along with village chiefs and local officials, a number of female community members stood to speak. Here are excerpts from what a few of these women shared.

“Before this time, our male folks were discriminating against us…they will make all the decisions on land issues without considering us. But thanks to this project, our voices are now heard. We now have the right to land and equally harvest crops, including wild palm.”
– Adama Conteh of Mashema Village

“As women, our brothers sidelined us when it came to land issues. They did not pay the required attention when we asked them for land to farm. But with this project, our requests for land are now easily granted. We now know women can inherit property just like men, and now we are equipped to fight back. I also want to thank the section chief for his strong leadership as he constantly reminds the men of the bylaws and how they should obey them.”
– Madam Saffie of Rosint Village

“I now know the size of my family land, and I even know the correct boundaries. I want to thank Namati and partners for coming with this project as it has helped to prevent land and other conflicts in our communities.”
– Marie from Rosint Village

It was clear from the reaction of the other community members, stakeholders, local politicians, and visitors in the audience that these women’s statements — and the confidence with which they spoke — were an unexpected change from the norm.

Women in Sierra Leone are mostly illiterate and the hardest hit by poverty. They are traditionally seen as “the weaker sex”. These factors often lead to their male counterparts marginalizing them, taking advantage of them, and violating their rights. This discrimination against women is outlawed under national law, but embedded in Sierra Leone’s customary law in several ways. Intestate succession is one example. Under customary law, when the husband dies, the wife gets nothing — not the home they lived in or the farmland they tilled. In fact, she herself is considered property to be devolved: one of the brothers of the deceased will inherit the woman, a practice known informally as “widow inheritance”.

Namati’s Community Land Protection (CLP) project supports rural communities to use national laws and policies, as well as mapping and documentation, to protect their customary and indigenous lands and natural resources against intruders, land grabbers and exploitative foreign investors, as well as to prevent intra and inter community conflicts. On the surface, the project may appear to solely serve the advancement of land security at the community level, but when implemented with a gender lens it is also an effective means for advancing equality and protecting women’s rights.

 

Development agencies such as UN Women, FAO, and OHCHR recognize that throughout the world, women’s ability to access, use, and control land and other productive resources are essential to ensuring their right to equality and an adequate standard of living. The CLP approach supports communities to remove the numerous customary barriers that prevent women’s access, use, and control of land and replace them with protections backed by national laws and policies.

At the outset of the project — and indeed throughout the project’s lifespan — community paralegals hold exclusive engagements with women to enable the free discussion of their situation and needs as they relate to land. The paralegals also conduct legal literacy sessions with the women and with the community as a whole to explain the National Land Policy 2015, including its numerous provisions to ensure inclusivity. The policy states, for example, that communities are to establish Village Area Land Committees that include women as members. This mandatory representation gives women the space and the right to participate in deciding how their communities’ land and resources will be managed.

Community paralegals assist the communities in establishing the committees and collectively devising bylaws that protect the interests of all groups, not just adult males. The technical aspects of the project — the mapping of their land and documenting of its boundaries — is done in a similarly inclusive manner to ensure that knowledge of the communities’ most important resource does not reside only with a select few.

During the scoping and baseline survey which marked the beginning of the project in the chiefdom, women consistently stated in interviews and focus group discussions that land issues are men’s issues; that the men are in control and only they can make decisions relating to land. What is more, they felt that this was how it should be. From the testimonies above, one can see a complete turnaround of the situation. The women in these communities now have the power of law in their hands, and with that, they can stand up effectively in defense of their rights and interests.

And this is exactly what they have done.

In the drafting of the bylaws, the women were able to push through various provisions of their interest including, a provision that give them at least 30% membership in the land governance committee, equal opportunity to participate in the harvesting of wild crops, prohibition of “wife-beating”, right to participate in land-related consultations and decision making, and more.

The project has shown that a legal empowerment approach is not only an effective means for ensuring communities’ rights to land and natural resources are protected, but also for ensuring that the concept of community includes, and will always include, women.

 


March 7, 2021 | Daniel Sesay

Region: Sierra Leone

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