Women in Sierra Leone: Resisting dispossession

Open Democracy | 16 December 2013

Women in Sierra Leone: Resisting Dispossession

Women in Sierra Leone are losing their land and livelihoods in the face of land grabs, discriminatory traditions and customs, and the lack of a strong legal framework. Mariama Tarawallie, Women’s Land Rights Project Coordinator at the Sierra Leone Network on the Right to Food (SiLNoRF) reports on the fight back by women mobilising at grassroots to claim their landrights in Sierra Leone. SiLNoRF’s women’s land right program is supported by the Fund for Global Human Rights.

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. These include agricultural companies such as Addax Bioenergy Company (SL) Limited and Magbass Sugar Complex, as well as mining companies, African Minerals (SL) Limited and London Mining (SL) Limited.  Our research and monitoring of the operations of one of the multinational companies, Addax Bioenergy, 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, clauses 4.4 and 4.6 of the land lease agreement between Addax and local communities, grant 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. In the village of Worreh Yeama for instance, the company diverted and partially destroyed the local stream to make space for a sugarcane field. This has caused serious water shortage in the village, forcing women to walk for long distances to look for water. According to one female resident of Worreh Yeama “women in rural areas are the most vulnerable to large scale land deals. Not only do these deals deprive us of our farmlands, we also suffer the most from the environmental and social consequences of these investments”. To mitigate the effect of the diversion the company has been digging bore holes, but local residents complain that the water from this source is not of good quality and is insufficient to serve their needs. Women who are involved in small scale agriculture growing crops such as groundnuts, vegetables, cassava and potatoes, have lost access to their farming lands due to Addax operations. The alternative lands provided to them are smaller in size, and involve walking long distances around pivots (circular sugarcane fields).

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. For example, in Masethleh Village in the Malal Mara Chiefdom, the local Affected Land Users Association (AFLUA) and SiLNoRF were able to press local authorities and the company to sign an agreement that guarantees the community land tenure rights and land use needs. Through the engagement process leading to the signing of the additional agreement, women members of the AFLUA successfully advocated for their traditional farm lands to be protected, and not included in the agreement. Also in the Worreh Yeama Village, women resisted attempts by the company to take over additional land. This particular piece of land has now been distributed among the women to do their gardening and small scale farming.  

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 of these bye-laws 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 kinship groups are increasingly involving women in land negotiations - as the examples of Masethleh and Worreh Yeama villages indicate.

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. In August 2013, with support from the Fund for Global Human Rights and UNDP, we hosted a women’s land rights conference in Makeni, northern Sierra Leone that brought together over 100 civil society activists, traditional leaders, and government officials to discuss the government’s draft land policy which includes clauses that subjected women’s land ownership to local customs and traditions. Speaking at the conference, 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.

About the author

Mariama Tarawallie is Women’s Land Rights Project Coordinator with the Sierra Leone Network on the Right to Food (SiLNoRF)

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