*Martha’s name has been changed to protect her identity.
The Honorable Ellen Olounfe Pratt, Commissioner of Land Use and Management with the Liberia Land Authority, advocates for women’s economic empowerment through land rights.
When I think about what the future holds for the women of my country, I think of Martha,* a 52-year-old mother of four and rubber farmer from Liberia’s food basket, Bong County.
When Martha’s husband died in 2006, her in-laws pressured her to marry her brother-in-law.
When the brother-in-law later claimed Martha’s land for himself, Martha again refused. And when her in-laws insisted, Martha appealed to village elders. They told her simply that she was the property of her husband’s clan. They explained, “Property cannot own property.”
Despite her years of labor on the land, her work to feed and care for her children as a single mother, and her successful management of her farm in the decade after her husband passed away, in the eyes of her fellow villagers her request to keep her land was unfathomable. She was seen as akin to a head of cattle seeking ownership of the land it plows.
In the land of my birth, women like Martha are expected to pour their sweat equity into the soil. And they do. Women comprise most of Liberia’s rural agricultural labor force. But women who expect to claim a piece of that ground as their own and build wealth from it face a harsh reckoning.
Across sub-Saharan Africa, it is not only widows who are chased from their land, it is sisters seeking to claim their inheritance, single mothers farming to provide for their children, and women who are “cursed” because they have not given birth to a son.
This is what it means to be a woman farmer in much of sub-Saharan Africa: it means that poor weather is often the least of your worries. Across the continent, women and girls face a pernicious web of laws, policies, programs, and customary practices that together undermine their empowerment and their ability to sow the seeds of success.
Our communities are poorer for it.
This is why I became a land use planner. Because land — and who gets to decide how it is used — is the central determinant of peace, stability, poverty reduction, economic development, and in Liberia, women’s empowerment.
Land rights are at once a powerful tool to achieve food security, poverty alleviation, and women’s economic empowerment and social change.
When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president of my country in 2006, I rejoiced at the milestone and promise of Africa’s women rising. But I knew in my heart that the trajectory of my country, and this continent, would be altered not only by the election of the first female president in Africa, but by the delivery of property rights and economic empowerment to ordinary women like Martha.
Too few governments, social investors, and civil society leaders recognize land and women’s rights to this land as a powerful fulcrum. There is no better tool for development than an empowered woman — full stop. We will not empower poor women without giving them equal rights to the most important asset in their communities — land.
Thankfully, an increasing number of governments are recognizing that agriculture is the surest way to lift people out of poverty, and that land rights — especially women’s land rights — are key to sustainable development. Land rights are at once a powerful tool to achieve food security, poverty alleviation, and women’s economic empowerment and social change.
For this reason, Eswatini, Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda, among others, have passed laws strengthening women’s property rights. Liberia has followed suit, enacting the Land Rights Act in 2018.
For the first time in our nation’s history, all Liberians have the right to own land, including women — a historic milestone in the campaign for every African woman’s rights.
In Liberia, as in many countries across the continent, there is an alarming disconnect between the law and lived experience. That disconnect arises, in part, from low levels of literacy.
The chance of being literate in a place such as Bong County, where Martha lives, is a coin toss — 50-50. Literacy and knowledge of the law are too often the domain of urban men — leaving many rural women without an understanding of their rights or the means of learning those rights. It is also the case that too often men see land rights as a zero-sum game. What women gain, they think, comes at men’s expense.
A wealth of research around the world demonstrates otherwise: where women have strong land rights and can enjoy those rights, researchers have found that the entire family benefits. In Vietnam, researchers have found that children whose mothers have strong land rights are 10% less likely to be sick. In Argentina and Ghana, researchers have documented that children whose mothers have strong land rights have better educational outcomes. In Zambia, families produce more on their farm when women have stronger rights to inherit land, and in Tanzania, researchers have found that women with secure rights to land earn 3.8 times more income. And of course, there is also the impact of increased agency on the women themselves.
The transformation I seek will not happen overnight. It will take time, tenacity, as well as thought provoking and paradigm shifting strategies. To this end, Liberia has established the Land Authority, of which I am one of the first commissioners. We have an ambitious agenda to reform Liberia’s land management and administration system, as well as strengthen property rights for all Liberians — including women.
With the support of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Land Authority conducted a series of meetings in villages and towns across the country where we heard from local women, including Martha, and explained to both the men and women present that the law and times have changed. Today women have equal rights to own and inherit land in Liberia.
Our goal is not only to spread the word about the legal change, but also to give women like Martha the knowledge, tools, and confidence to advocate for their rights.
Today, Martha has a team of rubber tappers working her farm. She sells her harvest to a nearby larger farm for processing. The proceeds have helped her build a home for her family and pay school fees for each of her four children. She is building a better future, standing in a field of her own — this should be the story of every Liberian woman.
*Martha’s name has been changed to protect her identity.