A woman’s battle to inherit land in Ivory Coast

Helene Tiro

A woman in rural Ivory Coast has been called to a meeting under the shaded veranda of the local chief's house to defend her right to inherit her husband's property.

Barely in her forties, she sits quietly with her head down; the town chief in the small village of Guinkin, close to the Liberian border, is doing much of the talking.

Occasionally she speaks up to give her side of the story: "My name is Helene Tiro.

"I lost my husband two years ago and I don't know where to go with my children," she explains, beginning to look desperate.

"My husband's brothers have sold all the farmland. I even don't know where to find food for my children."

Everyone looks at Mrs Tiro, somewhat stunned - not at what she is saying but the fact she is saying anything at all.

It is unusual for a woman in these remote rural areas to have such confidence to speak out against her own family.

"Today I am looking for a way to take back my land and feed my children," Mrs Tiro finally says defiantly.

She adds that she has seven children and no access to the land she has farmed on every day since she got married more than 20 years ago.

Her husband was among the more than 3,000 people who died during the six months of violence that erupted after the 2010 presidential elections when incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to step down.

Mrs Tiro not only lost her husband, but her means of earning her living too.

Marriage law row

Her story is not uncommon in Ivory Coast where tradition and culture dictate a woman's role in the family.

Last November, President Alassane Ouattara - who took power following Mr Gbagbo's capture in April 2011 - dissolved the entire government over an argument about amending the marriage law, which specified that men were the head of the household and so in charge of assets such as land and property.

Image caption In rural areas, women often do not know their new rights

After the president appointed a new prime minister, the bill was passed making women joint heads of the household.

But this has done little to change centuries of patriarchal traditions and cultures in rural areas.

"Today our law makes no distinction between men and women for the acquisition of properties," explains Maitre Kone Mahoua, the vice-president of the Association of Female Lawyers in Ivory Coast.

"But in rural areas some beliefs and customs still have an impact," she says.

Ms Mahoua describes how "women are weak because they are the ones for whom dowry is given", and that they, too, are seen as "property of the man".

It is not unusual in some African countries for the women and children to be handed over to the husband's family if he dies - the woman sometimes being "obliged" to marry another male member of the family in order to keep her children.

"We need to start sensitising our sisters in the rural areas so that they can have the same rights as men," she says.

Women across the world face inequalities when it comes to land ownership.

They produce nearly half of the world's food but in some countries they own as little as 2% of the land, according to figures from the United Nations.

As world leaders meet in Northern Ireland next week for the G8 summit, issues around land ownership are expected to be high on the agenda.

The UN and development charities claim if more women are given land and property rights, more food will be produced, reducing hunger.

Farm conflicts

As well as strong traditions, women in Ivory Coast have faced another barrier to land ownership - war.

Image caption Over the last 10 years of instability thousands of Ivorians have fled their land

In times of conflict, women enjoy even fewer land and property rights.

Hundreds of thousands of Ivorians have left their homes in the past 10 years of instability.

As people fled, the rich, fertile soil they left behind was quickly occupied.

Women like Mrs Tiro lost their husbands, sons, brothers and with them, their homes and livelihoods.

"The land issue has been a problem for a long time but the last crisis made it a lot worse," says Batio Etienne, the town chief of Guinkin.

"There are now many land problems," he says.

And as the refugees return, the number of land disputes increases and so does the violence.

Chief Etienne says that people are prepared to fight and die over land that has been in their families for generations.

"If our children don't have any land to farm on, what will they do in the future?"

The meeting to discuss Mrs Tiro's case is just the first of many.

Land conflict dominates life in the west of Ivory Coast - a rich cocoa-growing region that has been home to some of the worst violence the country has ever seen.

The town chief says it is likely Mrs Tiro will end up sharing the land with the man who bought it from her husband's family.

It is not ideal but he says nobody wants to see this argument turn violent.

"If my husband's family refuses what can I do?" says Mrs Tiro.

"I cannot resort to violence. I can't do anything as a woman."

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