NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A promise by Liberian President George Weah to change laws that discriminate against women is spurring campaigners to push for legal reform to protect wives’ land rights.
Women are lobbying Weah to rally lawmakers in Liberia’s upper house to amend a draft Land Rights Act (LRA), which says people must live in an area for 15 years to be recognized as residents - a clause that will lock out many wives.
“In the current Land Right Act draft, most women will not be considered as residents in their communities and will be left out of the land allocation process,” said Jennifer Duncan, Africa director at land rights advocacy group Landesa.
“The biggest thing that could be done is to enforce equal rights in customary marriages” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Across Africa, women traditionally move to live with their husbands’ communities when they marry, and their rights are usually restricted to farming and living on land that is handed down from father to son.
Improving women’s land rights is key to reducing poverty and exposure to domestic violence, as well as providing collateral for loans and security in old age, campaigners say.
The Senate is set to review and pass Liberia’s draft law, which was approved by the House of Representatives in August after years of delay, before the president signs it into law.
Weah, an ex-soccer star inaugurated in January, has promised to address land ownership, which has been at the center of many armed conflicts in Liberia, where civil war ended in 2003.
He also plans to review of all laws to remove clauses that discriminate against women.
“Laws on marriage, divorces, property rights, child custody and land ownership all contain powerful clauses that marginalize our women in favor of men,” Weah told a development conference in Brussels this month.
Most of Liberia’s 4 million people live on land held under customary tenure, which is largely administered by chiefs without legal title, according to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Activists hope the LRA will help women win equal land ownership - part of 17 global development goals adopted in 2015.
Ali Kaba, senior researcher at Liberia’s Sustainable Development Institute said he wants the law to be passed before parliament’s August recess, when other lobby groups will have a chance to propose further changes.
“Legislators usually go to an annual break in August and this is the time they get engaged with investors,” he said, referring to billions invested by logging and agriculture companies whose concessions are also under review.
“If something does not happen between now and end of July, we will go back to the streets.”