Land Policy, Gender and Plural Legal Systems

About the project

This project explores the impact of contemporary land policy on gender justice within the context of Sierra Leone’s legally pluralistic, post-colonial and post-conflict context. While Sierra Leone has several progressive laws and policies regarding women’s rights, human rights and property rights, there remains a disjuncture between political rhetoric and policy aspirations on the one hand and practical implementation and impact on women’s daily lives on the other. Furthermore, Sierra Leone’s economic recovery and development strategy has prioritised foreign direct investment and private sector-led growth. As such there is a lack of political will to prioritise or balance gender justice with corporate interest in land, where post-war development has come at the expense of women’s right to land and livelihood.

This project uses qualitative fieldwork and empirical analysis to critically examine this issue across four interrelated elements: (1) socio-legal and policy frameworks, (2) engagement and adaptation of customary tenure, (3) tenurial constraints and opportunities, and (4) current policy positions and reform debates. Although interested in the tenure rights of vulnerable people in general, the project focuses specifically on the tenurial (in)security of women, structures and practices which shape women’s land rights, and their experiences within pluralistic legal regimes.

Key findings

Women in rural areas still experience significant gender-based barriers to exercise their tenurial rights to family and communal land which remains governed by customary law.

Several laws and policies have been passed to ensure equal ownership, access, and use of land by women in Sierra Leone, including the Devolution of Estate Act (2007), Land Policy (2015), National Land Commission Act (2022), and Customary Land Rights Act (2022). While these laws and policies are progressive, they have very little impact in local communities due to poor implementation and structural issues.

Poverty, gender and region limit access to land.

Poverty is the main factor limiting access and acquisition of land, followed by being a migrant or non-local in a community. This is particularly the case for women who, to different extents depending on their location, also face marginalisation based on cultural patriarchal norms. In the Pujehun District in the South and Western Area Districts in and near Freetown women are perceived to have equal access to land if they can afford it. However, in Bombali District in the North and Kono District in the East there is differential access to land for men and women influenced by cultural gender norms.

Land disputes and land grabbing continue.

Post-war competition for land has led to major land-related disputes, the most prominent being land grabbing from the poor or those with little or no access to justice. This issue is mostly prevalent in the Western Area Districts where land is most expensive given the proximity to the capital, Freetown. In the provinces, land disputes are mostly related to large scale land acquisition by corporate agents. Kono, a diamond mining district, is also particularly affected by land grabbing.

Post-war economic recovery and corporate interest in land has surprisingly created space for women to be a part of conversations on land governance and its use.

The conflict and subsequent commercialisation of land has shifted the way local communities identify with and measure the value of land. In some ways this has opened up conversations about inclusive ownership and access with women advocating for themselves in family and community discussions. Post-war economic recovery in this sense is challenging patriarchal norms and traditions about land rights and land governance. However, women’s overall low socioeconomic status remains a greater threat to tenurial security.

While patriarchy is being challenged, capitalism is being reinforced.

Whilst there has been a shift in women’s participation in conversations about family and community land, those who profit the most are the companies and other owners of capital at both local and global levels. These companies are taking advantage of the liberalisation of the local economy to deny access to land or dispossess women of the land they have been fighting for. The capitalist economy is not paying attention to social justice and women’s economic empowerment, and it inhibits the development and sustainability of long-term gender justice and inclusive peace in the country.

Neoliberal reforms are often seen as ways to ‘emancipate women’ but they are performative for international audiences.

State actors and institutions often complicate the gender equality agenda, and their presence is creating more opportunities for the very actors themselves than for the women. Laws and policies are created for outside audiences and the international community, over a genuine interest in helping those who are marginalised, particularly rural women.

Women have limited access to representation in land dispute mechanisms.

Representation for women during land disputes is very limited and some women have limited access to the available justice mechanisms and support services. However, whilst there have been cases where there are delays in redressing disputes affecting women, this does not seem to be systematic.

The state structure itself is a colonial creation. So, nobody is revisiting what kind of state we need in postcolonial Africa. I think that remains a fundamental structural question.

Recommendations

Government of Sierra Leone

  • Legal and policy reform needs to be strengthened and inclusive of women in their implementation. The laws and policies that make provisions for guaranteeing equal ownership and access to land for women must be fully implemented by providing adequate resources, training, personnel, and oversight. This includes enacting regulations that enable the equitable implementation of the National Land Commission Act, Customary Land Rights Act, and Gender Empowerment Act, through a broad-based consultative process.Women in local communities, not just educated and elite women, should be included in these processes.
  • Demonstrate political will to protect the rights of women when they conflict with corporate land interests. The current market-driven economic system, which is underpinned by capitalist values does not empower women economically. The laws and policies about land rights must temper or balance corporate interests with gender justice and legal loopholes corrected so these rights are not compromised for capitalist gains.

Government of Sierra Leone and International Donors

  • Support civil society and local organisations working on the ground. These organisations are working in communities, where structural issues reproduce disadvantages for women every day. Civil society and local groups are using all resources available to implement the laws and policies in meaningful ways. They should be engaged, funded and better supported at a national and local level to continue this vital work.

Traditional authorities

  • Customary law should be reformed to allow equal representation and participation of women decision making, including in committees set up to manage land and land resources. As customary law is dynamic, those rules that discriminate against women should be changed to allow greater female participation in the rural economy and governance.

Civil society organisations / NGOs

  • Paralegal and dispute resolution assistance should be enhanced to ensure that women are fairly represented in land deals and have access to remedy when their rights are violated. While it may take a while for the formal state system to reach all rural communities and provide appropriate justice, the capacity of non-state actors must be expanded to help women navigate existing systems of governance and justice. They must also help with education and information sharing about new laws and policies that are beneficial to women, especially in poor rural communities.

We are seeing that even some of the good element of African tradition, they are being destabilised, they are being gradually eliminated and, and it’s because of this sort of blunt liberal tool that tends to see tradition as completely inimical to progress.