Access Denied: Property Rights for Women Not a Given
Religion & Liberty Online

Access Denied: Property Rights for Women Not a Given

A few days ago, a documentary entitled: Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, a portion of which is devoted to depicting the situation of violence against women in Sierra Leone, aired on Public Broadcasting Station (PBS). Not portrayed in the documentary, but also a factor that puts women in the country at a disadvantage is little or no right to private property. An INRN article states, “…the vast majority of women in Sierra Leone live under traditional land tenure structures that do not recognize a woman’s right to own property.”

These structures have prevented women from owning land, which is vitally important for business operation and personal livelihood. Escape from this land system is nearly impossible. Many of the provinces in Sierra Leone are governed through a legal system run by heads of ruling families, known as paramount chiefs. The article goes on to explain, “Paramount chiefs, the “custodians of the land,” are generally men and most ethnic groups do not allow women to inherit land and property.”

Apart from the very evident aspect of social inequality, disallowing women to own private property hurts the country’s economy. The article states:

“ According to the US State Department’s 2011 Investment Climate Statement, agriculture accounts for over half of Sierra Leone’s income, up to 80 percent of the country’s agricultural workforce are women, and women farmers directly affect 40 percent of the national revenue.”

Excluding women from the economy in this way limits their capacity to contribute to society, as well as earn a living for themselves. Moreover, it is an attack on the dignity of the human person.

If traditional customs denigrate individuals, rather than promote virtue and empowerment, a negative side of culture is projected. In this case, such practices have been permitted to flourish, contrary to current law. Although a portion of Sierra Leone’s formal legal system criminalizes depriving a woman from inheriting her husband’s property after his death, it is often ignored by paramount chiefs and relatives looking to gain under the traditional system. Sierra Leonean women realize the illegitimacy of the law’s application, and have sought ways to make progress in reversing traditional private property norms.

In June 2012, Sierra Leone held its first ever conference on women’s right to land usage. Women from communities around Sierra Leone, policy makers, traditional leaders, and NGOs, came together to discuss this important topic. As the dialogue continues, we sincerely hope that participants keep the dignity of the human person in mind, as well as consider the great negative impact the limitation of individuals has on the country’s economy.

This article is cross-posted at

Matthea Brandenburg

Matthea works on the Acton Institute's PovertyCure initiative. She graduated from Aquinas College (Grand Rapids, MI) in 2012 with a B.A. in Political Science and German.