Sierra Leone is the latest African country to legalize the ownership of lands by women. The country’s president Julius Maada Bio has enacted the gender equality and women’s empowerment bill into law. The new law is to be enforced, alongside the customary land rights Act 2022, allowing women equal rights as men to own, lease, or buy land in the country. It also allows women to be appointed paramount chiefs, demanding a 30% representation in public and private offices. Any person who discriminates in providing access to land resources based on gender commits an offense and is liable on conviction to a fine of not less than $2,600 or imprisonment for a term not less than 5 years or both. This is a welcome development for the country, as Sierra Leone is one of the African countries that has struggled with the disparity in women’s rights for decades, six decades to be precise. 

Before this law, 83% of owned lands belonged to the family, with custom requiring the oldest male to hold the land in trust or with a paramount chief being the holder of communal land. This tradition prevailed because 95% of land in the country is owned by the customary law, which was the main law that governed the people. In a recent interview with Quartz, the president of the women’s forum Sierra Leone, Sally Adams, said the Sierra Leone civil war worsened the situation with men orchestrating mass violations of human rights against women, further relegating them to the status of second-class citizens with diminished rights.

In 2007, Sierra Leone then adopted the devolution of estate Act, making it a criminal activity to deprive a woman of inheriting her husband’s property after his death. This act recognized that inheritance should be shared among surviving families, with 35% going to the spouse, 35% to the children, 15% to the parents, and 15% in line with any customary laws. However, the act only addressed the women rights under family rights and not as individuals. So, this couldn’t address land ownership by Sierra Leonean women who live under traditional land tenure structures that do not recognize the individual women’s right to own property. However, these kinds of “traditional” laws only prevail where there are no statuary laws such as the newly enacted law. 

Apart from women’s rights development in Sierra Leone, women owning lands is also a step in the right direction for agriculture in the country. According to the food and agricultural organization, Sierra Leone relies heavily on agriculture, which makes up almost half of its GDP. Sierra Leonean women represent about 70 percent of this agriculture workforce. These female farmers directly affect 40% of the national revenue. Now with more female landowners, there are more opportunities for the emergence of land markets and agricultural commercialization in Sierra Leone and by extension, Africa.

The new Sierra Leonean law is definitely a leap for women’s development in Africa, as many countries in Africa still experience gender disparity deeply rooted in cultural norms. In most traditional African cultures, land and housing are regulated by customary law. And although the degree varies from culture to culture, women are generally prohibited by these customary laws from owning or inheriting land or other property. In some situations, even when women own lands, they cannot claim these lands because their husbands are perceived as household heads. In some cultures, the woman is considered property herself and can be ‘shared’ by the family at any time. 

In July 2004, heads of the member states of the African Union gathered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to make a declaration to actively promote the implementation of legislation that strengthens women’s land, property, and inheritance rights, including their right to housing. This declaration is in addition to the gender equality sustainability goal targeted by the UN. However, years have passed, and little progress has been made in either reviewing dated legislation or implementing these rights. More women still struggle to own lands, a natural resource meant to be enjoyed by everyone. In some cities like Lagos, Nigeria, this disparity typically extends to landlords not leasing houses to women. According to the world bank, less than 13% of women aged 20-49 have rights to land in sub-Saharan Africa. Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda are some of the countries that have enforced laws to silence these traditional norms, thereby fostering gender parity in all areas of economic development. 

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2022, it will take another 132 years to close the gender gap eminent in these nations. Nevertheless, news like these show that the conversation around gender parity is going in the right direction. Archaic traditions are being changed by contemporary global policies. A change in mindset may not happen immediately but the continent is surely getting there.

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