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Land Rights: Men Can, Why Not Women?

It was the former Secretary of State for the United State of America; Hilary Clinton who oncesaid that “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights”. But for some quarters of the society especially in Africa, women are still not seen as equals in the society. And as such, society has put men over women considering them as object and personal property with limited or rights accorded them.

Teresa Kargbo 38, is a typical example of how women have been subjected to undue sufferings by society especially when it comes to land rights in Northern Region of Sierra Leone. Teresa is a single mother who lost her husband three years ago. Thus, she now bears the responsibility of providing for herself and the family of eight. Teresa like many other women was born in a landowning family in the Yainkasa Section in the Bombali District, Northern Sierra Leone. Because of bad customs and tradition, Teresa was not catered for when the family was allocating hundreds of acres of land to her male siblings.

It’s a common practice in Sierra Leone especially the northern region that women are not entitled to owning land because customs and traditions does not permit them to. The Draft National Land Policy (NLP) of 2015 described this situation as Women are not only at a disadvantaged position as far as inheritance to land is concerned. Due to the prevalence of customary rules of succession based on the patrilineal system in Sierra Leone, they are also unable to access land due to the fact that they are, invariably, not economically or otherwise adequately endowed to acquire land rights in the open market.”

This is the exact situation of Teresa who despite being the eldest daughter, she was left with no land to either farm on or undertake some commercial activities. Proponents of land rights have posited that majority of Sierra Leoneans, especially women in the Provinces use land as their principal source of livelihood and for material wealth. Research has shown that more women are connected to land use than men. Meanwhile, the NLP agrees that, the greater majority of women do not have ready access to land and most of them could be described as landless as they are invariably tenant farmers engaged in subsistence agriculture.

For Teresa and her colleagues, they are required to pay some money locally called ‘Bora’ in the Temne dialect. This money is normally paid to the male landownersbefore access is given to women to undertake any farming activity. This is a clear indication that women are not landowners and they have to go through huddles before using a God-given-gift (land) to all mankinds. Similarly, she also disclosed that away from the bora, they also have to hire youths to plough and later harrow their farms since they alone cannot achieve much tilling the soil.Worse of all, most of the women cannot afford the cost to hire the men so intrinsically, they cannot farm.

“Here, we are treated like strangers in our own land. I can’t imagine why men have free access to and can boast of owning lands whenwe are not given such a fair treatment? Teresa asked as she rushes to fetch water from the nearby locally hand dug well to irrigate her vegetable garden.

Buttressing to what Teresa said during our visit to their garden, Aminata Sesay said that life was a bit okay for them before the advent of a multinational company known as Addax/Sunbird Bioenergy.  This company leased most of the community lands and the remaining ones are not even enough for the male and thus, women are not considered but if they do, they are asked to pay before a small portion is allocated to them. With the coming of that company, community lands were leased and a yearly payment made to landowning families. As you will imagine, the male members of the family are the ones receiving the money on their behalf and they (women) don’t know the amount received and how will it be used.

Aminata explained that when the company came, meetings were held with all affected communities in the chiefdoms to start the negotiation process. When the company officials came to meet with them, they (women) were asked to excuse the male because they wanted to discuss very important and crucial issues. Treating women insignificantly has been the normal routine in the country especially when it comes to decision making at almost all levels. Since women are not given the rights to own land, they areexcluded from any arrangement that has to do with land. These social exclusion and discrimination has according to Aminata has brought untold sufferings upon them because the money is paid; their husbands end up marrying more wives while other become chronic intoxicators.

In changing this status quo of women and their landlessness, several players are using different approaches to contribute their bits. The Sierra Leone chapter of Transparency International; a global civil society anti-corruption network has, through it numerous researches realized that the land sector is one that is shredded in corruption. As a way of curbing corruption from both the private and public sectors, TI extended its advocacy against corruption to the land sector through a project titled “land and corruption in Africa” currently being implemented. This project is geared towards promoting transparency and accountability in land management and administration in Sierra Leone especially at the rural areas of the country. Through the land rights advocacy platform established in the Bombali District, Transparency International Sierra Leone is collectively working with community stakeholders not just to curb corruption but also to make women’s land rights a reality in Sierra Leone. This platform comprise likeminded civil society organizations, community based organizations and other key actors both at community and district levels. 

As stated by Hilary Clinton, women’s rights are human rights thus it should be protected at all levels. Land rights activists are of the view that the system of land management and administration in Sierra Leone must guarantee access to land and security of tenure for all citizens including women. It high time we braced up to eliminate all forms of discrimination in the area of ownership of land by women especially in the northern region of Sierra Leone. Therefore, until this situation change, we keep asking ourselves why men enjoy land rights in its entirety while women are not.

This article was written by Santigie Sesayin Makeni.  It was produced for Transparency International Sierra Leone, as part of the Land and Corruption in Sub-Saharan Africa Programme. For more information, please visit www.tisierraleone.org

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