Vivienne Francis is a Gender Officer with Action for Community Transformation (ACT), a community empowerment NGO in Liberia. She joined the inaugural course with the Women’s Land Rights Institute to gain a broader perspective on what’s effective when it comes to securing women’s access to land. As the course got underway, Vivienne spoke to Dominic Black about her hopes and expectations for the 10-week course, how it will help her in her work, and why the work is important. Our conversation’s been edited for length and clarity.
DB: What is it about this course that particularly excites you?
Vivienne: When I saw the course my first thought was ‘Oh wow. This is going to be an opportunity to meet people in the land rights field who are doing something similar to what we are doing, but from several different countries, and to get different perspectives.’
When it comes to land rights, I thought Liberia maybe just got left behind because of the war, but it’s a problem everywhere. And obviously, with women’s rights I knew already that this is endemic. And I just wanted to see how much better other countries are dealing with the issue of women’s rights: is there much progress? No progress?
DB: And what have you found out in that regard?
Vivienne: When we discussed it in the first week we just talked informally about ‘What are your views about women’s land rights in your country? And how optimistic are you for change?’
And we found most people are optimistic for change – I’m quite optimistic for change. A few people weren’t, and I know why. It’s really slow. Very, very slow. Sometimes you feel like we are just standing still. But I know change is happening. Even when I go about in the communities, I can see that the message is getting out there and some women are realizing they can use their rights.
DB: Why does land matter?
Vivienne: I think when I started working in this field, I didn’t realize the importance of land – it affects a wider aspect than I thought. I’ve always been drawn to women’s rights and also to children, working with girl children. But when I got to do a bit of research, I saw just how many areas of the community you can impact through working in the land rights area.
Because land is so important to the communities – it’s where they get all their income from and just how they get by, how they get their livelihood. And if we can help them to make this aspect of their life secure then it’s definitely going to improve for future generations as well, because that’s one of the issues we have.
When land rights are not secure and there is insecurity in terms of inheritance and succession, you don’t get to build a strong family or you don’t get to have a lift up in life. They’re always starting from zero – everyone’s always starting from zero. If you manage to get those land rights regularized and people can have security over their land, then it’s definitely going to improve their situation, and that’s a huge motivation for me.
Land Rights Reform in Liberia
DB: What are the main challenges around land rights in Liberia?
Vivienne: Well, there’s a big land rights reform going on in Liberia. The Land Rights Act was reformed in 2018. A lot of changes were made, but changes in the law have not physically been enacted because of financial constraints.
DB: Why is the land rights reform happening?
Vivienne: So…after the war there were a lot of land disputes going on. Partly because the land laws were archaic and laws were drawn up by people who were not in touch with the situation of the whole country. It’s quite an old act and the law was quite rigid. For example, there were only two types of land identified, private land and public land. That doesn’t take into account cultural norms and community land, which makes up pretty much seventy percent of the land in Liberia.
And there is a lot of land in Liberia that is unregistered. In the community, there are customary norms. For example, in Bong County they know their boundaries and their borders and it’s just local knowledge. It has been that established for so long that everyone knows that ‘This whole area belongs to this clan or this tribe.’ But there’s no documentation. So when we have contracts and legal disputes arise, these people haven’t got any paperwork to support their ownership of their land. So that’s one of the biggest challenges.
DB: Do you have an example of what that means in practice?
Vivienne: Yes. One of the areas I mentioned is Bong County – actually in every county these things are common – but let’s say this one. In Bong County there are mining areas, and some of the mining companies have their contracts with previous governments. And those mines are on customary land. Some of them are literally in someone’s community, in the village. (Usually, you will have mining activity away from the community because of all the environmental hazards that come with a mine.)
So one of the communities in Bong County is not able to do anything about the pollution of their water supply from the gold mining activities because they didn’t have someone to represent them in the past. And also, because the community were not the contract holders they did not have the right to discuss the contracts with the company. Even village elders and people who have some amount of responsibility in the community have tried to have discourse with the mining company, but the company refuses to deal with them. They say that although they are mining in this community, they were given this land by – a previous government – and that government is who they’ll deal with.
So legally the town is in a grey area. Mining continues to go on, the pollution is still going on, and we have had several areas in the community like the school which are unusable by the community because of this mine. And the main water supply for the community is unusable.
DB: So to deal with all of these issues the government came up with reforms in 2018?
Vivienne: Yes. In 2018 the government came out with a reform and it’s quite good. Now, instead of just public land and private land we now have customary land, which is the community land. Which is one of the areas on which my NGO is focused. Because although the customary land has now been defined in the law, it’s up to communities to legally regularize their area. They need to decide which communities will come together as one, they need to identify their boundaries, elect a committee that will manage the land and any land related issues, get the land surveyed and registered in the community name and they will get issued with a deed for their land. There are a lot of costs involved.
DB: With that context in mind, how is the Institute course helping you in your work?
Vivienne: It has really helped me to realize that ‘Wow, this thing is going on at an international level.’ And also, you know about it – this is your proof. If there is an issue and your colleagues already have got a solution for it then you get a boost. And if it’s something they’re still working on you still get a boost because you realize that you’re not alone in this field. You’ve got so many others working on the same problem, so you feel a kind of community spirit on the course.
So, I find that it is a combination of the course material itself and the interaction that I get with my colleagues – those are the big benefits I am gaining from the course. And I would say the course leaders are what I would have hoped for: they are very professional, and they do their work very well.
DB: Would you recommend the course?
Vivienne: Yes I would definitely recommend the course. Back to what I said earlier, even if you are a professional working in this field, it has something to teach you. It enlightens you about the issues that are facing women worldwide, but it also gives you a lot of connections that you can make. You can learn from the other professionals in the course – some people have more experience; others have less experience. It just gives you a broad scope to work with.
DB: It’s interesting you said earlier that you’re optimistic – are you an optimist by nature?
Vivienne: I try to be an optimist. For us, me and my team, looking at our efforts – not just our organization but in Liberia as a whole – we can see we’re definitely not at the level we need to be at development wise. However…if you compare the country now to a period of maybe say ten years ago, you can definitely see an improvement. And it’s important to focus on that, even if the improvement is very small. It helps you see that when you put in effort you can get something back.
Vivienne Francis is a Gender Officer with Action for Community Transformation (ACT), a community empowerment NGO in Liberia.