Lessons from Wologizi: The Challenges of Navigating Centuries of Taboos, Traditions and Customary Practices in Securing Women’s Customary Land and Property Rights in Liberia


By Radiatu Haja Sheriff-Kahnplaye, Policy Advisor, Natural Resources Women

Platform Background

Liberia is currently in the middle of a defining presidential and legislative election with about 20 presidential candidates and thousands of legislative candidates. The electoral process for 2017 including a controversial Supreme Court decision has brought into question as to whether the outcome would be credible and peaceful, especially given that the United Nations peace keeping force is also withdrawing from the country.

As Liberians cautiously observe the electoral process, they are also being reminded of the havoc of the years of civil war which resulted in the death of approximately 250,000 people driven by widespread greed over natural resources and wealth illegally obtained from such resources. There were violations of human rights which were compounded by systematic inequality and the loss of livelihoods. Women became the worst victims and suffered the most. They painfully experienced some of the most egregious and indescribable forms of violence and abuse. Land and natural resources fueled that conflict. It is therefore important that as Liberians decide the direction of our country on October 10, we are reminded about the role land and natural resources played in our conflict.

In the last eleven years, despite improvement in legislations that provide protection to customary land and property rights, the Government of Liberia has failed to guarantee the free, prior and informed consent of communities, especially women depending on land and natural resources  affected by large-scale land development, violating not only the rights of community members to control and manage the land they directly cultivate but the broader territory inclusive of natural resources, medicinal plants, hunting grounds, fishing grounds, rivers, streams, shrines, sacred sites and other forest resources.

The rights of communities to land and natural resources, especially women depending on land and natural resources, are fundamental in securing the set of rights related to livelihood, culture, self-identification, self-management and the right to determine their own priorities for development. This means that if communities have control over development affecting them and their lands and resources, they will be able to maintain and strengthen their institutions and promote their development in accordance with their aspirations and needs.

The lack of community participation in the granting of large-scale concessions over ancestral and/or traditionally-held lands has led to resource-based violence across many agriculture, forestry and mining concessions, leading to heightened tension between community members and concession holders on the one hand and community members and government on the other. This is also worsening the poverty situation of marginal and vulnerable forest-dependent peoples, mostly women, in the rural areas. The results have included the intimidation, arrest, torture and detention of human rights defenders of land and natural resources in Liberia by government and concession holders.

The problems

In late September of 2016, the Natural Resources Women Platform with support from Green Advocates launched a report, “Women: The Least Secure Tenure: Assessing the impacts of large-scale land acquisitions on women’s tenure rights in Liberia.” The report through series of cross case analyses focused on women’s tenure rights in natural resources, where it found that even though women are the primary users of natural resources, their tenure rights are much less secure than men. Per the report, women’s situation and circumstances is further made even more tenuous where large scale land development is imposed on local communities thereby extinguishing most rights and privileges women may have had under customary tenure, pushing them beyond even marginal lands.

The report detailed disturbing rights violations and documented how women human rights defenders protesting the grabbing of their customary lands have faced threats, arrests and imprisonment as well as series of criminal charges and offenses. It notes that “the lack of gender considerations in working conditions and practices was outstanding and had deterred women from much needed access to productive work relegating women to the background with little recognition of women as important and equal stakeholders in decision making over the use (or disposal), management and control of land and natural resources.”

The report established how the “loss of land, forests and water resources had affected women in their reproductive, productive and community management roles” concluding that “women can be considered less fortunate because in the context of natural resources they hold the least secure tenure.”

Reversing insecurity of tenure for women, especially women depending on land and natural resources in Liberia, is a humongous task. This is because in Liberia, women’s insecurity of tenure has been informed and entrenched by centuries of taboos, traditions and customary practices often reinforced by supernatural beliefs.

Partial View of women participants at the Participatory Rural Appraisal-Darbu Town

It is these traditions and archaic superstitious beliefs that have held hostage the rights of women to land and property rights in Liberia. This is what must be unpackaged to secure women’s customary land and property rights not just in Liberia but perhaps globally.

The Wologizi Mountain range -the Failed attempts to secretly award it and the political fallouts

One of the five case study areas, that the Natural Resources Women Platform, carried out its field investigation to assess the impact of large scale concession land development that informed the report, “Women the Least Secure Tenure,” was among Wologizi communities in Lofa County.

This case study location was selected because it had not experienced large scale land concession development and customary practices were very much intact.Wologizi therefore provided a potential not just because it would contribute to the establishment of a robust and informed community institution to ensure the recognition and protection of collective rights to land and resources, but that it was also an important study area to observe the interplay of how centuries of taboos, traditions and customary practices are serving as barriers and impediments to securing women’s customary land and property rights in Liberia.

It remains one of Liberia’s traditional communities where community members have customary ways of recognizing land and resource rights of individual members or households, the collective rights to self-determination, cultural integrity and development. Community members have traditionally occupied and owned the land and resources in Wologizi, which was inherited from their ancestors.

For community members, it is the traditional occupation and use which is the basis for establishing community land rights and self-identification as well as maintaining and strengthening collective rights to land and natural resources.

There have already been two failed attempts to grant out the mountain range as a concession. The Government of Liberia, in 2013, tried to secretly award Wologizi to Jindal Steel & Power Limited, and the recent row to secretly award Wologizi to Sable Mining Company by changing Liberia’s procurement law.

Deconstructing the Insecurity of Tenure- A robust and participatory local institution

In late April of 2017, the Natural Resources Women Platform in partnership with Green Advocates embarked on a process of contributing to addressing the issues of security of tenure through the establishment of a robust and informed community institution to ensure the recognition and protection of collective rights to land and resources by local communities and indigenous people inhabiting the Wologizi mountain range already earmarked for expansion of concessions in Liberia.

In May of 2017, the Natural Resource Women Platform (NRWP) joined by Green Advocates and their county-based partner organization, conducted six participatory rural appraisal (PRA) workshops in six project targeted communities surrounding the Wologizi mountain range.

During the PRA, the women platform focused on facilitating women’s leadership and representation in the current and future governing institutions associated with the management of land and natural resources located within the Wologizi mountain range and the surrounding communities.

Legal and policy experts working with the women platform and Green Advocates recommended that by utilizing the Community Rights Law, the Land Rights Policy and the Draft Land Rights Act, a robust, gender focused, informed and resilient community based institution would be expected to serve as a preventive measure against the violation of community rights while empowering community members to increase their control and management of their land and natural resources and put them in the driver seat of their own development and priorities.

This approach seems to be a material paradigm shift from current approaches to protecting collective land rights. For example, over the past years, civil society organizations and their local community partners have assisted local communities to demand their rights in land areas already occupied by large-scale concessions.

Community members have succeeded in slowing down, delaying and in some instances holding back the monstrous pace of large-scale concessions development in Liberia. In some instances, the Government of Liberia publicly admitted that there were errors in awarding concessions outside community consent, promising to consult communities in decision making over future concessions.

However, despite the public admissions of error and blunder in awarding concessions, reversing such concessions to recognize and respect collective rights to land and natural resources, restore sacred sites and damaged water systems has been slow and difficult.

Challenges associated with facilitating women leadership and representation on customary governance institution 

The Women Platform and Green Advocates researchers organized and divided the six communities into two working groups based on the geographic locations around the Wologizi range as well as the demographic characteristics of each of the six communities. Group one engaged Wobeyanmai, Beideyeziba and Karzah, while group two engaged with Dabu, Kpademai and Betibah.

The team conducted the research in a way that allowed all field assistants, researchers and community participants to benefit from an improved understanding and shared experience of the methodology of the workshop. The entire team participated in facilitating the first research workshop held in Beideyeziba, which gave everyone on the team a better understanding of the design of the workshop, the composition of the participants and the facilitation and/or presentation processes.

The team was divided into their respective groups ensuring that there was at least one female researcher on each of the two working groups as well as at least two female participants from each of the communities, a timetable developed with topics and timeframes for presentation.

Given the sensitivities surrounding women participation, the Women Platform made extra efforts to ensure that at least two women were selected to form part of the participants from each of the communities. As an additional safeguard, the participatory mapping training workshop was organized outside of the six communities in the municipal capital of Lofa county, Voinjama city.

Preliminary findings

Women participants invited from all six communities that participated in the workshop including the three other women participants from neighboring towns (Jenneh, Gondorla and Wanlema) that were invited to the Darbu workshop had no idea as to how land is owned by their communities or the commitments or rights their customary leaders have granted outsiders to their land and resources.

All the women participants had no knowledge that benefits or social contributions were being given to their leaders as compensation by strangers as rights to live on, use, access or harvest resources from their land.

Even though women had knowledge about the existence of traditional governance institutions, they were, however, rarely consulted or encouraged to participate in natural resources decision making processes, except in situations concerning domestic complaints or dispute resolution processes.

In all the six communities, community leaders included women as participants, though women were afraid to ask or respond to questions because of traditions that have existed over the years in their communities restricting women from speaking or making any decision in meetings related to their communities.

As the various workshops made progress, it became clear that traditional, customary, taboos and superstitious belief practices by communities around the Wologizi Mountain had created obstacles which were serving as barriers to women participation and impeding women’s performance during discussions at the workshops in the six communities.

Breaking away from customary practices, traditions and taboos

Women were observing centuries of customary practices and taboos that prevented them from speaking or making decisions when men are present. In the towns of Beduiyeziba and Wobeyanmai, when women were directly asked by the facilitator to give feedbacks on laws being presented during the workshop, not a single woman spoke up or could say a word – it was voiced by elders of the town that women are to remain quiet during meetings.

It was a queer moment with an eerie feeling as the room was so quiet, that the participants could hear the rustle of the leaves against the branches of the trees surrounding the workshop room.

It took a delicate negotiation with the elders and chiefs as well as an affirmative gender based balancing act by the women platform to break the ice permitting the women participants to talk in the presence of their men.

A woman participant breaking away from taboos and tradition during the mapping training session in Bet bah

After the elders and chiefs consented, the women who had been quiet began participating and asking questions. The chief Zoe of Wobeyamai Town (Zita Kolubah- not her real name) said she’s happy about all the good laws that give communities rights to the land and resources they have resided and owned for so many years.

Lorpu Midi (not her real name) said she worked for Firestone Rubber Plantation Company when workers were paid 10 cents and later 20 cents. She inquired “whether monetary value is attached to the land demarcation that the community’s representatives will be trained to map” She inquired “my reason for asking this question is we gave money to some surveyor for the demarcation of our land to allow the community obtain deed for the land. Since the transaction, we have not gotten the deed to our land.”

Another woman participant inquired “whether the organizers will support and defend the Wobeyanmai Community.” Musu sumo (not her real name ), a woman participant from Wobeyanmai Town, said that women have not had the opportunity to make decisions or point out things moving in the right direction only because “our men believe that women are not able to make any positive change in society.” An elderly woman asked “what will be the cost of suing the government in a case where they violate the rights of a community?”

A young woman participant inquired “with common boundaries between communities around the Wologizi Mountain, if one community has investment into their community and the investors cross the boundary into the next community what should the community do?” Another woman from the town of Gondorla asked what “if a company is allowed to harvest timber in a community but the community later observed the company extracting iron ore, what should be done by the community?”

A woman participant from Darbu Town asked “if a company operation requires the community to relocate to another community what should be the community’s reaction?” Finally, an elderly woman from Darbu Town asked “Do I have the authority to extract gold and diamond from my community since the land and resources on the land are owned by my community?”

The workshop was all of a sudden alive and the women, all smiling and joyful, were asking questions one after another. It was a sigh of relief and its seems a huge burden had been lifted.

The workshop facilitators and field research assistants from Monrovia could not believe the depth and level of knowledge, expertise and experience flowing from out of the questions and queries of these women.

All of a sudden, it was like a scene in a marketplace and the chit chat of these women took over the room like a storm as the men watched and observed in amazement, and probably dumb founded that their women participants could ask such intelligent and informed questions.

Navigating the taboos, traditions and customary practices that serve as barriers to securing women customary land and property rights

The various questions and inquiries were a shocking reminder of how taboos, traditions and superstitious beliefs among communities around the Wologizi Mountain had created an obstacle of grading women’s performance during discussions at the workshops in the six communities.

Thus, it was recommended by the Natural Resource Women Platform that men give their women power and authority participate in all future community meetings.

The Women Platform took extra time to explain to all participants why it was important for men to understand women have rights and form a cardinal part of the issues around land and resources, especially since woman even use the land and natural resources more than men.

To conclude, in a campaign designed to establish a robust and informed community institution, especially if the goal is to also facilitate and enable women leadership and representation, development experts, field researchers and activists must be able to navigate the taboos, traditions, superstitious beliefs and customary practices that serves as barriers and impediments to securing women’s customary land and property rights.

It is therefore important that as Liberians decide the direction of our country on October 10, we are not only reminded about the role land and natural resources played in our conflict, but much more important our mothers, sisters, daughters, grandmothers, and wives.

We must commit to unshackle centuries of taboos and traditions that have held them as unequal to men and guarantee them equal rights to land and natural resources.






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