Rights’ Campaigner Urges Women to Participate in Upcoming Election for Forest Bodies  

By Paul M. Kanneh | Liberia Forest Media Watch (LFMW) paulkanneh5@gmail.com*

Women’s rights campaigner and Chairperson of the National Civil Society Council of Liberia, Loretta A. Pope-Kai has challenged her fellow women to participate in the pending election of officials of the Community Forest Management Bodies (CFMB).

In an exclusive interview with the Liberia Forest Media Watch (LFMW) on Wednesday, March 17, 2021 shortly after the regular monthly meeting of the Civil Society Independent Forest Monitoring Coordination Mechanism (CS-IFM-CM), Madam Pope-Kai said, local women who have been trained need to take up the challenge to test their ability by participating in the pending election of CFMBs across forested communities.

“So in our meeting you heard me telling the national union facilitator that Foundation for Community Initiatives (FCI) is interested in the election for the CFDC/CFMB. So we need to have the timely information when these election going to occur so we go back in the community to remind these women that, you have been trained, so you need now to put into practice what you have been learned”, she emphasized

According to her, the upcoming election for forest bodies is a litmus test for the women in their drive to bridge the gap between gender disparities. “So you have this upcoming election, you need to participate. Forest business is not men business alone; forest business is a collective business”.

She reminded women about the provision of the law that says women are part of the community and, hence, should be key decision makers in deciding benefits and not just men alone.

The Land Rights Act, in Article 32 invokes that community owns the land collectively, and that women have equal rights as men: “all community members of a community are members of the community and have equal rights to the use and management of the community land, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, religion and disability” (Article 34).

Despite these privileges, the tough talking Liberian Civil Society Leader revealed that women’s participation in forest governance is very low. She however attributed the disparities to lack of information and traditional practices, which she said women themselves are key players.

“So currently only one woman, Amie from Rivercess who is sitting at the national structure level as Vice President for operations”, the National Civil Society Council Chairperson further lamented.

The lack of information and traditional influence on women’s participation in forest leadership in Liberia remains a national challenge for rights’ campaigners. Some traditional practice for a particular group of people forbid women from talking among men. To minimize such traditional influence, and as well as curtail information barrier, Mrs. Loretta said, her organization (FCI) has elevated discussion on gender to focus mainly on not just women’s participation, but the role they play in decision making. She believes that this campaign is achievable only if information is modified into simple context to suit community level information dissemination.

Referencing the work of both forest unions: Community Forest Management Body (CFMB) and Community Forestry Development Committee (CFDC), the FCI executive asserted that both entities have serious challenge with gender disparity. She rated women’s participation in the unions’ structure as 10%, nothing, such ration is very low.  “If we are looking at the 50-50 representation in the two unions, women are at 10% in representation which is very low”.

She said, as part of their strategy, FCI is looking at the governance structures of CFDC & CFMB-how the unions are supporting women to participate in leadership structure. She however noted that women will shy away from these processes if they don’t have the rightful information on time.

Forest discussion being male dominant in Liberia, Loretta Pope-kai, the lone female member of CS-IFM-CM said her organization’s dream is to erase such notion and create a level plain field where both men and women can participate at an equilibrium level.

“So we want to erase that notion that the issues of forest and land rights are men business, they are not men business, they are collective efforts of the community”, she said to LFMW.

Also as a way of supporting inclusivity, the FCI official said her organization is creating complementary activities around the forest and land governance sectors, which include livelihood initiatives for women such as village saving and loan association and business development training. At these gatherings, she said women and men will not talk about saving and loan association without referencing natural resource governance.

Although land and forest matters are practically men business in Liberia despite efforts by civil society actors to promote women’s participation, local perception put female high over their male counterparts in the usage of land and forest. In most instances, women are considered inferior to men in deciding land matter even though they (women) use the bush more often than men in some Liberian communities.

Women are suspected of keeping more time in the bush. Aside from men brushing, felling trees and clearing the farm, the women plant (scratch) the farm, drive birds from eating the rice, weed in the rice, harvest and play leading role in transporting the rice to town. Following harvest, the women use the old spot to make pepper and bitter-ball farms, beans farm, groundnuts, etc. The women frequently visit the farm spot to pick greens, pepper, bitter balls, beans, and other soup kinds for feeding and market purpose. This follows about 9 months’ post rice harvest activities from the farm-when the women remained engaged with activities on the farm that men took 3 months to brush, fell tress and cleared with infrequent supervision/visitations.

While men irregularly use the forest for hunting, extract rattan, wildlife, palm, rafters and bitter kola from the forest, women frequently visit the forest for fishing and collect bitter root, snails, and bush yam, mushroom and fire-wood, palm kernels, etc. In specific cases in polygamy homes, the women engaged in self-help initiatives by making swamps or small rice spot aside from the general family farm that the husbands make for all. Women often use swamp lands for extra farming activities for food security purpose in case the general household runs out of food in the middle of the hunger season (rainy season).  These extra activities compel the women to spend more time in the bush than the men/husbands. While women remain engaged in post rice harvest activities, it is incumbent on them to join their children to harvest the cocoa and coffee farms. Interestingly, these cocoa and coffee farms that are being harvested by the women belong to their husbands or the male child, and not the wife/girl child.

With this, Loretta Pope-Kai believes women should be given the opportunity to not only participate in land and forest discussion, but to play leadership role in deciding what happens to the land and forest. She considers women ownership of land as key to women empowerment and local economic growth. “You have elders in the community, you have youth in the community, you have children in the community and you have women in the community. Bringing them together to discuss land and forest issues is likely to empower women and children and improve livelihood”, She concluded.

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