FREETOWN — In Sierra Leone, about 80 percent of the people working in the agricultural sector are women. They face huge challenges when it comes to land rights, however, which leads to more poverty for them and their children. Measures are being taken, though, to empower women in rural areas.
Abibatu Sankoh monitors a machine at the farming business where she works in the community called Mile 91, in a northern part of Sierra Leone. The machine is used to remove the husk and bran layers to produce a white kernel that is free of impurities.
She said the machine has saved her a lot time and labor, and she can sell rice faster. She said this has helped people in the area to find work and support themselves. She also said that she is better able to feed her six children and pay for their school fees.
Her community has benefited from a joint program between the Ministry of Agriculture and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to create agricultural business centers - known as ABCs - across the country. These centers teach farmers marketing and recordkeeping skills.
David Mwesigwa, one of the implementation managers of the program, said women have been given authoritative roles at the business centers.
"We had a target of 25 percent of the board members of ABC's that had to be occupied by women. And, we've seen many are treasurers because of their trust of handling money," said Mwesigwa. "Many are secretaries because of their knowledge in terms of writing and keeping records. Those positions are very key."
Although women here are gaining ground in agricultural-based businesses, they still face huge issues when it comes to land rights.
The independent Italian humanitarian organization Cooperazione Internazionale [COOPI] says the right to land is almost non-existent for women.
Roisin Cavanaugh, a manager with the group, said the law and local practice often are different.
"The government brought in a piece of legislation called the Devolution of Estate Act 2007, which was supposed to give women increased rights to land and protect them. But they only have rights to inherit the property of the husband, if the husband out rightly owns the property. If that property is family property then there's nothing the Devolution of Estate Act says about women's right to family property," said Cavanaugh.
Sierra Leone’s 1991 constitution states that all persons are equal under the law, “unless customary law says otherwise.” And, "otherwise" is the issue. In rural areas, paramount chiefs are in charge of communities and land, and they allocate it to men. There are no inheritance rights for women and they can be kicked off the land if their husband dies - leaving them with no job and no home.
Cavanaugh said women have a hard time making a case to change the system because of their lack of education. That is why she said her organization is working on teaching women to read on a country where half the women are illiterate.
"It's very difficult for women to advocate on behalf of themselves when they don't even know the documents they are putting their thumbprint to, when they could be signing their rights away to land. So, we are trying to get women to a functional level of literacy," said Cavanaugh.
COOPI also has worked to educate women on their rights and how to appeal to get land back that was taken from them.
Cavanaugh said 120 cases have come through COOPI and probably half have resulted in women getting their land back or compensation.