Women’s Land Rights in Liberia in Law, Practice, and Future Reforms: LGSA Women’s Land Rights Study

This LGSA Women’s Land Rights Study serves as a consolidated resource to help guide the gender-responsive implementation of Liberia’s 2013 Land Rights Policy (LRP). It is based on legal research of the formal legal system; original, exploratory field research in five communities spanning three counties; and secondary research drawing primarily from research conducted under USAID’s Liberian land projects.

This report begins with an overview of the basic legal framework that establishes women’s land rights and then proceeds to a description of six primary thematic topics related to women’s land rights and participation in land governance: 1) land tenure systems; 2) marriage/de facto unions; 3) inheritance; 4) land governance; 5) access to justice and dispute resolution; and 6) concessions.


The authors explored four major types of tenure arrangements in this report: customary land rights, hybrid land rights as represented by Tribal Certificates (TCs), private land rights and public land rights held in concession agreements. Within each of these arrangements, women’s access, use, control and overall rights to land differ from (and tend to be less secure than) those of men, although women’s ownership of private land has existed for settler women for many decades in the coastal region and may be increasing in urban areas across Liberia. This section of the report discusses what these differences are, and how they affect women’s ability to access, use, control and manage land.


The civil law of Liberia provides for three types of marriage — civil, customary and presumed, each with its own implications for property. Within the context of marriage, the research team made a particular effort to learn more about women’s land rights in the context of de facto unions or long-term cohabitation. Marriage informality is a rising trend in the areas visited by the authors; in these areas more than half of marriage-like relationships (and in some areas many more) have not been formalized, according to custom or civil law. Because de facto unions exist in a legal vacuum—given widespread confusion about legal framework for presumptive marriages — women and children in such arrangements have only tenuous rights to land, typically obtained through the husband’s male lineage and family.


The study explores several topics related to inheritance, including inheritance by wives and inheritance by daughters. According to participants in the five communities visited, land inheritance by widows is often contingent on their willingness to marry a surviving male relative of their deceased husband. There are also continuing cases of forced widow inheritance, in which a widow is required to marry a male relative of her deceased spouse, even though this practice is illegal. Daughters—as compared with sons—in the areas visited seem to rarely receive their inheritance. When daughters inherit land, their rights are often restricted to housing and use rights to farm short-term crops.


More could be done to ensure gender-responsive land governance in the law, in key governance institutions, and in practice. Women are generally excluded from groups that make decisions about land governance at the community level. Women’s role in official land governance institutions is limited when compared to men’s roles, with fewer women in positions of decision-making authority in both the customary system and the statutory governance system (including at the municipal, county and national
levels). Women are also disadvantaged due to norms requiring male accompaniment, lack of consultation and under-recognition of women’s land rights and inheritance rights.


Women’s access to justice and dispute resolution is closely related to their position in land governance. Women are generally excluded from groups that make decisions about land at the community level. However, women who hold positions of authority within these institutions (such as District Commissioners or officers with the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection) often find themselves in high demand for assistance in mediating land conflicts involving women. When land disputes arise, many rural people have trouble accessing formal justice systems because of barriers related to cost, literacy and travel, and rural women experience more challenges in overcoming the barriers, for example, due to higher rates of illiteracy and additional gender-specific barriers, such as social norms that discourage what is seen as acrimonious behavior from women. Without this access, women must either resort to informal dispute resolution (in which they are not well-represented) or let disputes go unresolved.


Concessions are a major concern for women and men in communities who live and farm in and near concession areas. Participants in the focus areas related that concessions have often led to displacement and loss of access to traditional farming and forest lands. Like most laws, those governing concessions are gender-neutral, but impact women in substantially different ways, and frequently in more adverse ways than men.