Building feminist peace: gender, legal reforms and social reproduction after the United Nations Mission in Liberia

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  • 1 University of Ghent, Belgium
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This article explores efforts to attain feminist peace in Liberia by critically examining the implementation of gender-sensitive provisions in two national reforms that seek to transform the country after war: the Land Rights Act 2018 and the Local Government Act 2018. Drawing from extensive fieldwork, it argues that these reforms are sites of struggle between the goal of national transformation towards feminist peace and the reproduction of existing socio-political cleavages, with a particular focus on (certain) women’s political, socio-economic and gender oppression. The article also demonstrates how despite implementation failures and lack of consultation, these legal reforms open new (in)formal spaces for building feminist peace. Attending to the ways in which women resist and mobilise in these newly (in)formal spaces, the article brings to light the peace work these women are doing for transforming post-war gender regimes that prevent women’s representation and a more equitable redistribution of power and resources.

Abstract

This article explores efforts to attain feminist peace in Liberia by critically examining the implementation of gender-sensitive provisions in two national reforms that seek to transform the country after war: the Land Rights Act 2018 and the Local Government Act 2018. Drawing from extensive fieldwork, it argues that these reforms are sites of struggle between the goal of national transformation towards feminist peace and the reproduction of existing socio-political cleavages, with a particular focus on (certain) women’s political, socio-economic and gender oppression. The article also demonstrates how despite implementation failures and lack of consultation, these legal reforms open new (in)formal spaces for building feminist peace. Attending to the ways in which women resist and mobilise in these newly (in)formal spaces, the article brings to light the peace work these women are doing for transforming post-war gender regimes that prevent women’s representation and a more equitable redistribution of power and resources.

Key messages

  • This article explores efforts to attain feminist peace in Liberia by examining gender-sensitive provisions in two national reforms: the Land Rights Act 2018 and the Local Government Act 2018.

  • National reforms are sites of struggle between the aspirations for national transformation and the reproduction of existing socio-political cleavages.

  • Feminist peace takes social reproduction as a priority.

Introduction

A feminist peace ensures the inclusive economic/material and social/spiritual empowerment of the most marginalised in society. Feminist peace takes social reproduction – all the activities necessary for biological reproduction, unpaid production in the home and the reproduction of culture and ideology – as a priority (Faxon, 2017; Elias and Rai, 2019; Hedström and Olivius, 2020). It therefore concentrates not only on redistributing material resources to those whose labour has been considered as disposable, but also on enabling the promotion of the cultural and spiritual heritage of marginalised communities. In post-conflict societies, where the priority to restore the political order and neoliberal (formal) economy risks deepening inequalities and marginalisation, understanding how the material and the spiritual dimensions of life reproduction are interlinked has radical feminist potential.

Women living in conflict-affected areas are particularly vulnerable to land, natural resources and boundary disputes (Faxon, 2017; Hedström and Olivius, 2020). Rural women’s land tenure is precarious, and while they can access resources for subsistence farm work (Apusigah, 2009), they are considered as non-farm labourers who help male members of the farm (Tsikata and Yaro, 2014). Furthermore, the lack of social services in post-war states results in women taking on the burden of social reproduction (Faxon, 2017; Hedström, 2021). Crucially, women’s economic poverty and material insecurity relative to men’s can increase in the aftermath of conflict if the inequal access to social and economic resources is not corrected (True, 2012).

Some feminist scholars argue that periods of violence have worked as ‘windows of opportunity’ to bring a feminist peace to post-conflict contexts (Schroeder, 2005; Smet, 2009; Tripp et al, 2009; Berry, 2018). International peacebuilding programmes often demand that post-war governments develop a national law-reform agenda addressing socio-economic issues relating to identity, accountability, citizenship and land rights, as well as a conflict mitigation and national reconciliation strategy (Martin de Almagro, 2021). However, oftentimes, these early wins do not result in more feminist societies in the long run (Bargués-Pedreny and Martin de Almagro, 2020). For some, gender-equality initiatives have rarely transformed the structural power asymmetries and lack of economic opportunities of the post-war era (Martin de Almagro and Ryan, 2019; Cohn and Duncanson, 2020), and have made feminist peace ideas complicit with neoliberal and neocolonial agendas (Pratt, 2013; Parashar, 2019). Although the rhetorical commitment to gender within peacebuilding programmes has ended up enhancing peace at the national level (Tripp et al, 2009), its benefits do not automatically filter down to rural communities. African feminists argue that this is, in no small part, due to a binary understanding of gender in isolation to other social identities, such as race and ethnicity, and that is alien to local cosmologies and practices (Tamale, 2020; Hudson, 2021). In turn, this binary understanding is reflected in the colonial and neoliberal division of labour, and its ongoing logics of dispossession and extraction, present in national land reform programmes in the aftermath of conflict (Rodriguez Castro, 2021).

There are few studies devoted to examining the gendered impact of land reform and decentralisation projects as tools for sustainable peace (Borras and Franco, 2010; Behrman et al, 2011; Daley, 2011). Those who have examined the gendered impacts of colonial and postcolonial land commercialisation and tenure reforms in sub-Saharan Africa have argued that these reforms have been detrimental to women, household production systems and livelihoods (Razavi, 2003; Whitehead and Tsikata, 2003). Based on a logic of formal market economy that does not leave space for other forms of post-conflict recovery, they have resulted in land conflicts, land concentration and the dispossession of smallholders (Bergeron and Healy, 2015). In addition, decentralisation efforts often accompany these land reforms as policies able to cement peace (Brancati, 2009). However, whereas women’s participation in local structures increases gender sensitivity to local priorities (Maharaj and Maharaj, 2004; Hicks, 2011), there is no consistent evidence which proves that decentralisation has a positive impact on service delivery and better representation (Schou and Haug, 2005).

In this article, I propose a feminist political-economy perspective of peace that has social reproduction at its core (Elias, 2015; Martin de Almagro and Ryan, 2019). Through the study of post-war gender-sensitive land and decentralisation reforms in Liberia – the Land Rights Act 2018 (LRA) and the Local Government Act 2018 (LGA) – I argue that post-war gender-sensitive reforms have limited effects on correcting inequalities and marginalisation because they are embedded within the contours of a global neoliberal economic and historical system, as well as a local patriarchal social model, in isolation from women-centred agendas, perpetuating the unequal redistribution of power. This is important because the reforms promise to transform the geographical and imagined space of the country, to reduce long-held inequalities in Liberia, and to give a more equal access to civil rights and material benefits to all citizens, with a particular focus on those who have been marginalised the most. I therefore propose to conceptualise nationwide reforms as sites of struggle between the ambitions for national transformation and the reproduction of existing socio-political cleavages.

The stories and narratives presented here were mainly gathered through observational techniques, as well as from data obtained from ten semi-structured interviews with experts in the implementation of the LRA and the LGA in Monrovia, and six focus groups in rural Liberia, between November 2018 and July 2019, which I contrast with publicly available written documents and resources. Such conversations took place in both formal and informal settings, and by no means represent the full repository of stories around these national reforms. My ambition is to uncover the key aspects around which certain gender norms are reproduced or contested and thus to gather competing stories from a variety of sources. The quotes selected are representative of these key aspects and exemplify issues raised by multiple interviewees. This is based on the assumption that we can never obtain and research a full repository of perceptions, beliefs and experiences, as these are continuously changing. Interviews with key actors in the public sphere, such as civil society activists, journalists and policymakers, or ‘norm entrepreneurs’ more generally, therefore highlight the controversies circulating in the political sphere at a given moment in time.

I present my argument as follows. The next section further introduces the theoretical and conceptual framework. The subsequent section gives an overview of feminist peace activism in Liberia. The two empirical sections that follow offer two readings of the national reforms in Liberia. The first empirical section examines the content and the implementation of the land and decentralisation reforms, and focuses on how female rural citizens have been understood as legal subjects and the effects this has had on the (re)production of intersectional gendered norms and hierarchies. Using publicly available documents and semi-structured interviews with bureaucrats and activists, I offer a feminist political-economy perspective that makes visible the interaction of axes of difference and power relations in a situated political intervention (Crenshaw, 1989; Choo and Ferree, 2010), as well as the interrelation of ‘local realities’ and ‘national and global dynamics and structures of power’ (Devine et al, 2020: 15). I demonstrate that state-led and internationally funded peacebuilding and development models envision these national reforms and their gender-sensitive provisions as a tool for preventing conflict and inserting post-war countries into the global economy. This logic of economic production forgets about the role of land and space in the social and spiritual construction of communities. The second empirical section explores rural women’s own understandings of these reforms and their impact on their everyday, socially mediated roles. Here, I show how despite implementation failures and lack of consultation, these reforms also catalysed critical conversations in Liberia about the pursuit of life reproduction and women’s mobilisation. In the article’s concluding remarks, I reflect on the political and intellectual potential of a feminist political-economy analysis of peace that centres the material and spiritual dimensions of social reproduction.

Feminist peace, social reproduction and national reforms in sub-Saharan Africa

Feminist perspectives of peace understand women’s experiences of everyday and ordinary violence as constitutive of broader relations of gendered power, violence and exploitation (Cohn, 2013; Wibben, 2021). Violence can be understood not as separate, single acts, but rather as a continuum, being a manifestation of structural inequality and gendered power relations (Braithwaite and D’Costa, 2018). As such, acts of violence are ‘dynamically connected through social, political and economic factors in the surrounding context’ (Krause, 2015: 16). This analytical lens offers a holistic understanding of (gendered) violence in periods of transition that blurs distinctions between war and peace, the personal and the political, and the private and the public (Boulding, 1984; Enloe, 2000). Ultimately, although post-conflict territorial and economic reforms are often treated as technical and apolitical, they certainly have a significant impact on the (re)production of inequalities and marginalisation that once contributed to conflict (Unruh, 2009).

One useful political-economy perspective on feminist peace offers a radical centring of (women’s) social reproductive work. This work includes not only care labour or drudgery, but also the cultural work of passing on knowledge on, for example, specific crops and livelihoods, and sustaining cultural identities across generations (Carney, 2003). The concept of social reproduction was first used by feminist Marxists to describe how unwaged and devalued women’s work enables capitalist growth by sustaining life (Federici, 2012; Bhattacharya, 2017). However, feminists working on rural communities have offered broader notions of social reproduction that also valorise the labour of maintaining good rural lives and societies, as well as the identities forged through activities of the rural economy, such as farming (Chung, 2017; Faxon, 2020). Like them, I understand social reproduction as a process that includes providing for families and care work, as well as passing on communal identities and values. Social reproduction in rural communities is dependent on access to land and self-government. Social reproduction, which is fundamentally gendered, serves not only to sustain land and communities, but also to shape cultural norms and environmental knowledge (Kerr, 2014). In rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa, cultivating and exploiting the land serves to provide food for the family and to reproduce cultural knowledge that is passed on to future generations. Land tenure is therefore more than material; it is also spiritual, social, relational and political (Berry, 1993). For example, in rural Liberia, women have knowledge of forest and edible produce, as well as medicinal plants; they are the ones doing seed selection and preservation, and they pass on this knowledge to younger women so that they can ensure the survival of the family and community. The recognition of these different dimensions enables rural communities to feel a sense of belonging to their ancestral land (Shipton, 2009). This has clear implications for how we conceptualise land, access to land rights and gender-sensitive land reforms.

To understand how and whether gender-sensitive national land and decentralisation reforms contribute to feminist peace, it is essential to start from different women’s situated everyday and ordinary experiences in agricultural work and land access, all within the framework of global neoliberal economic logics, local patriarchal values and customary laws. Feminist peace scholarship has recognised that the neoliberal economic logics of the United Nations (UN) peacebuilding project are at odds with the feminist peace logics behind the integration of gender perspectives in peacebuilding (Shepherd, 2017; Martin de Almagro and Ryan, 2019). They have demonstrated how neoliberal post-war reconstruction strategies that are based on the expansion of capitalist markets and extractive industry exploitation, including land reform and land privatisation for biofuel production and export, prevent the achievement of sustainable peace and put rural women in a much worse situation than before the war (Cohn, 2013; Hedström and Olivius, 2020).

By inquiring into how gender intersects in these reforms with ethnicity, age, race and class to negotiate resource control and access, as well as social and political status (Oyewumi, 2003; Lugones, 2007; Elmhirst, 2011; Mollett and Faria, 2013; Tamale, 2020; Hudson, 2021), we can unpack how seemingly gender-sensitive national reforms can provoke new inequalities by, for example, reducing women’s access to informal agricultural labour or by creating gendered opportunities to purchase private land. This reading of gender as relational can also help dismantle the coloniality of gender, which has isolated gender from race, class and indigeneity to enable a heterosexist gender system that permeates ‘racialized patriarchal control over production, including knowledge production, and over collective authority and agency’ (Lugones, 2007: 206).

Securing women’s rights and feminist peace in liberia?

Liberia was established in 1822 as an ‘American outpost’ of immigration for free black people and repatriated slaves by the American Colonisation Society (ACS), and in 1847, it declared itself independent from the ACS (Guannu, 1989: 49; Burrowes, 2004: 61). The country became a melting pot that included the 16 ethnolinguistic indigenous groups already occupying the territory, black repatriates from the American continent, freed slaves from the Congo River Basin and emigrants from the West Indies (Liebenow, 1987: 19; Guannu, 1989). An Americo-Liberian oligarchical elite formed by both indigenous and repatriate elements controlled Liberia’s economy, natural resources and access to political power (Burrowes, 2004). The remainder of Liberia’s population, which were kept out of the formal economy and relied on farming, informal trade and other commercial activities, also had parallel systems of politico-ritual authority formed by men and women, with systems of checks and balances that prevented the abuse of power of local chiefs and other elites (Moran, 2012).

Although the war brought devastation and poverty to women’s lives, the academic literature has demonstrated that instability and violence can act as ‘windows of oppportunity’ for women to organise economically and politically (Tripp et al, 2009; Berry, 2018). In Liberia, women organised through a rhetoric of motherhood, leaving behind ethnic and religious identities to set up the mass action that famously transformed them into peacebuilders and forced warlords and other political leaders to sit at the negotiation table (Alaga, 2011; Okech, 2011; Prash, 2015). Their success was due not to an essentialised idea of motherhood as child bearers, but to their previous experience in pre-colonial Africa as household diplomats, with the authority, respectability and social status that enabled them to settle disputes among children, neighbours and the youth (Oyewumi, 1997; Moran, 2012; Yacob-Haliso, 2019). The mobilisation of the gendered identity of mothers is not therefore an essentialist and material construction of women as carers; rather, it is an exercise of power to protect their own interests as women and a political strategy that is deployed for political effectiveness (Van Allen, 2009; Lawson and Flomo, 2020).

The 2003 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that put an end to the 14-year civil war (1989–2003) included the establishment of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL). Since then, the country has ensured a peaceful transition and has experienced an upsurge in state-led and internationally backed development initiatives, such as the Pro-poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development (PAPD), national land and administrative reforms, and foreign investment in natural resources. However, there are continuing peacebuilding challenges related, above all, to land, boundary disputes and concession-related tensions (Government of Liberia, 2018), to human rights abuses and violations, and to corruption (Liberia Common Country Assessment, 2018: 26–7). This is why although UNMIL closed its doors in 2018, the UN set up the Liberia Multi-Partner Trust Fund1 within the governance of the Peacebuilding Fund2 as a means to support the most important legal reforms recommended by the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (2008) report: the decentralisation process of the country through a local government law; and the acknowledgement of community land through the creation and implementation of a land rights law.

The 2018 LRA ensures, for the first time, a delicate balance between the rights of individuals to own private land and the recognition and protection of the communal land rights of as much as 80 per cent of Liberians that lived without legally recognised rights to the land they had been occupying for decades and centuries. Although members of Liberian civil society have hailed the legislation as one of the ‘most progressive’ land reform laws on the African continent (Landesa, 2018), there is a clear will to make investment in agricultural and natural resources more attractive to investors through the privatisation of land and demarcation of geographical boundaries: “Liberia drives on investments for the economy. If investors are coming in, they need to know which land area they need to use” (Interview 5, 31 July 2019).

The 2018 LGA is arguably the first legal instrument drafted in Liberia to effectuate full devolution of political, fiscal and administrative powers to local sub-national units, and it works hand in hand with the LRA. These two reforms are conceived by the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report as tools able to correct the marginalisations and power differentials that were part of the root causes of conflict, to devolve power to indigenous communities in the country, and to work towards achieving sustainable (and feminist) peace. In this section, I demonstrate that these reforms are sites of struggle between the aspirations for national transformation towards feminist peace and the reproduction of existing socio-political cleavages, with a particular focus on (certain) women’s political, socio-economic and gender oppression.

The content: descriptive gender equality and individual economic empowerment

Gender equality and gender mainstreaming are considered essential principles in the LGA and the LRA. The LGA has a whole chapter on gender mainstreaming that enumerates the actions to take on the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence, protection of women, and participation of women in local government. Although there is no dedicated chapter in the LRA to the principles of gender equality and women’s empowerment, the short document translating the LRA into Liberian English has a whole section on gender equality, and the pictures of community meetings in the document invariably show 50 per cent women and 50 per cent men. Although the aim is to gradually change gender inequality and a patriarchal culture, the measures proposed focus on including women in decision-making structures in government and in land committees, without necessarily transforming the status quo (Tamale, 1999; Tripp, 2001).

The LRA provides two measures to bolster women’s participation in the management of land and natural resources: first, by making explicit that women have equal rights to ownership of private and communal land (LRA, art 3); and, second, by making it compulsory for communal land-governing structures – the Community Land Development and Management Committees (CLDMCs) – to include at least 33 per cent women (LRA, art 34). This has nevertheless created tensions and dissatisfaction among community chiefs “because even though they have now rights to community land, they are not going to be the one making decisions” (Interview 2, local non-governmental organisation [NGO] manager, Monrovia, 19 November 2018). Having a third of women in the CLDMCs does still not ensure that women’s voices will be heard, and asking about “which women [are part of these committees] is important, because there are no safeguards for the inclusion of minorities, etc” (Interview 3, public civil servant, Monrovia, 12 July 2019). Several loopholes and vague provisions in the practices of member selection could ensure the maintenance of a system where (male) chiefs – who are ex officio members of the CLDMCs – and those with the most power in the community dominate the CLDMCs and de facto have a new formal institution with the power to decide how community land is exploited, sold or lent. As one of my interviewees put it: “It is not just about ensuring a third of women there; it should be about making deliberate efforts to bring certain people and minorities on board” (Interview 3, public civil servant, Monrovia, 12 July 2019).

The limits of simply adding women are also visible in the LGA. Liberia has 12 per cent of women in the legislature and 6 per cent of women in local government positions, ranking among the lowest in the world in terms of women’s representation in parliament (UN Women, 2016). In addition to the devolution of powers to the sub-national units, the LGA has an entire chapter – though the shortest of them all – that provides for a system of inclusive governance requiring the participation and representation of women, minority ethnic groups and other disadvantaged segments of the population in governance mechanisms in the counties. The chapter specifies that ‘local governments shall ensure equal access to participation in local government decision-making’ and provide ‘opportunities for women representations in structures of local government decision-making such as local government councils, advisory boards, as well as in other areas of local government service’ (LGA, art 35). However, what ‘equal access’ means is unclear even to those that are in charge of implementing the LGA. A programme manager at the Liberia Governance Commission explained that the law was revolutionary because it had eliminated the controversial need for a quota that had not passed at the national level, requiring, at the same time, 50 per cent of women in all structures:

‘The women were fighting in the Affirmative Bill for 30 per cent in the national legislature but the LGA says, “No, everybody should be given equal rights in local government.” We have the county council, the city council and the district council. On the county council, women are equally represented as men. There is no 30 per cent affirmative action, but the condition that the women who will be represented in the county or the city council should come from a recognised women group, recognised by the Ministry of Gender.’ (Interview 1, public civil servant, Monrovia, 19 November 2018)

Nevertheless, there is nothing in the LGA that obliges the parties to do anything more than an effort for inclusivity, and only certain women that are already ‘recognised’ as legitimate representatives of the women’s voice can be part of the councils.

The implementation: class, indigeneity and social capital

The intersectional, gendered power relations resulting from the encounter between (in)formal Liberian institutions and customs, local patriarchal values, and international macroeconomic operations in the country operate to make the gender provisions contained in the acts, in practice, relatively ineffective for prioritising social reproduction. These encounters end up depleting women and marginalised communities of material resources, reducing the spaces where women reproduce and transfer the cultural and spiritual heritage of their communities, and reproducing and reinforcing socio-political cleavages. I came across several powerful women who owned land and businesses, hired labourers to cultivate their farms, and participated in the otherwise male-dominated decision-making structures. Class and indigeneity allow these women to overcome discriminatory institutional barriers and buy land that used to collectively belong to the community. In contrast, many settler women that had moved to their husband’s community, as well as poorer women, rely on the community land for their livelihoods. Many female heads of household use the commons to collect fuelwood, which they process into charcoal and sell either to traders or directly to end users. As a result, both poorer men and women experience a loss of communal resources through privatisation, but women experience it in ‘a gender-intensified way’ (Levien, 2017). This is because the quantity of available communal land upon which women rely for their livelihoods and knowledge production and transfer is reducing considerably.

There are two ways in which the LRA makes it legal to privatise communal land. The first is through the tribal certificates that a tribal authority issues to certify the right of a citizen to a parcel of communal land for their private investment and enjoyment. Under the LRA, if the tribal certificate holder can show investment in and development of the land, the certificate can be transformed into a private land deed. The main goal of requesting a tribal certificate and its translation into a deed is to privatise land that belongs to a community. Although the issuance of tribal certificates is available to both men and women, patrilocality and patriliny are the informal rule in rural Liberia and constitute an additional land-management institution. For centuries, unmarried women have gained access to land through the male family head, while married women usually receive a small plot of land from their husband to grow food crops for family needs. Women also provide labour on their husband’s plots, often exploited for cash crops and extra income. The fact that women are usually not allowed to develop communal land for growing cash crops or for conducting business makes it extremely difficult for them to qualify for tribal certificates, as they cannot show land development and investment (Interview 5, international NGO staff, Monrovia, 25 July 2019). The second way in which communal land can be privatised is through the recognition of a residential area within community land as private land. The LRA recognises that women have the right to buy land singly, jointly or collectively, and a residential area within customary land can be deeded in a woman’s own name.

Whereas before the LRA, communal land was only lent for private development while ownership rested in the community, this land can now be sold, resulting in a race to plant cash crops “even by Liberian senators” (Interview 4, women’s organisation representative, Monrovia, 23 July 2019). First, this leaves rural women with less communal territory and material resources. While, in general, Liberian women have fewer rights than men to land, land rights are also shaped by class, or the amount of land a family holds, and indigeneity, or the relationship that women have with the family elders and their husbands. By tradition, those women who married within their community have the right to keep the land their father had lent them and to accumulate land. The LRA institutionalises that tradition and determines that women who left their community to live in their husband’s are strangers and not community members until they have lived in their new community for at least seven years. As they move, then, women are both prevented from keeping land from their fathers in their community, and from owning land in their husband’s communal territory (Mnisi and Claassens, 2009).

Some local NGOs have also pointed out that although the 2019 LRA implementation guidelines recognise that traditional communal institutions are male dominated and that gender sensitisation is essential, the privatisation process is fundamentally detrimental for feminist peace. They have criticised their international partners for pushing for representation clauses that are too much and of too little use, without understanding socio-political cleavages and how what could be a win for urban, educated women puts rural women in a very unsafe spot:

‘The international community does not get the pace of the gender reform. If I can get two or three women to talk, and then I leave, then these women will be probably ostracised in the community. If you push for a gender reform, it has to be with a lot of support from the community so that it does not get into a social conflict once you leave.’ (Interview 6, local NGO representative, Monrovia, 17 July 2019)

The fact that decisions of the CLDMCs have to be made by consensus and without a quorum could result in excessive pressures on those members perceived as less authoritative or legitimate in a patriarchal society. These power differentials are also visible in the LGA, as “promoting equal access to participation and to representation does not ensure that this equal representation will take place” (Interview 7, women’s organisation representative, Monrovia, 31 July 2019).

Second, the repurposing of land to production purposes through the privatisation of communal land that had been developed by an individual makes it impossible for rural women as mothers to pass on communal identity, as this repurposing erases traditional understandings of communal land that put the well-being of the group, such as the family, local community or ethnic group, above that of the individual (Woodman, 1996). Third, and as a consequence, private landownership perpetuates the socio-political cleavages and inequalities that were root causes of conflict. Vast quantities of land are now cultivated through the use of paid labour, creating new power dynamics between a dominant class of urban owners who now employ those who previously cultivated their own communal land, and those who struggle to find new sufficient resources to survive, such as widowed or unmarried women.

In sum, whereas the foregrounding of gender in the LRA and LGA may seem progressive, its equation with ‘adding women’ shifts the attention away from the different roles women can play in their relationship to land, and from the differentiated impact that the imposition of a neoliberal model of land privatisation and the concession of communal land can have on (different) women, and towards the patriarchal nature of local institutions for land and resource management. In this way, gender operates in interaction with other axes of difference, such as class, age and ethnicity, in a global economic and historical system, producing new gender-based exclusions, accentuating inequalities and determining which women have the social, political and economic capital to benefit from these reforms. The radical feminist pretensions of the projects founder on the shoals of intersectional, institutionalised power relations.

Opening spaces for contestation

Although these new reforms have provided a narrow focus to feminist peace and have understood land and space only as economic resources, they are shifting international and national technical, financial and logistical aid from the capital city of Monrovia to rural areas. Despite implementation failures and lack of consultation, these reforms also catalysed critical conversations in Liberia about the pursuit of life reproduction and women’s mobilisation. The numerous internationally funded training programmes and workshops for ‘rural women leadership’ and ‘women’s economic empowerment’, and the information sessions on gender and the LRA that are being carried out around the country, are without precedent (Interview 8, UN staff, Monrovia, 12 November 2018). First, they have helped contest pre-war gender orders in unexpected ways. In Golodee Town (Bomi County), a group of six women that had received training to be part of the CLDMC explained how women’s rights in their community had improved in all spheres of productive and reproductive life. They were knowledgeable about the LRA and their rights to an equal place in the productive economy and to a seat at the negotiation table with concessions. However, they also had a much larger stake in the labours of social reproduction and decided to use the training to campaign against child marriage and prevent marital disputes in the community: “The rights of women and girls to education was being violated by our parents, but when we came back from the training, we tried to educate our parents, and now our girls are, to some extent, competing with the boys when it comes to education” (Focus Group 1, Woman 4, Golodee, Bomi, 17 July 2019).

Second, it was precisely the reshuffling of where gender equality should happen – from Monrovia to the counties – through the LGA that had been life changing for these women because “we know more about rural business” (Focus Group 1, Woman 3, Golodee, Bomi, 17 July 2019). In other words: “Things have changed for women because they can take part in local government. We have a woman city mayor, a woman clan chief, a woman town chief. So, things have changed” (Focus Group 2, Woman 3, Tubmanburg, Bomi, 17 July 2019). Additionally, 34 rural women’s organisations from seven counties created the Women Coalition for County Development in July 2019, with the purpose of ensuring the participation of women in the management of local economic and social development through the County and Social Development Fund (CSDF). They wanted to ensure that the CSDF is “free from corruption” and prioritises “issues affecting women” (Focus Group 4, Woman 6, Rural Women Structures of Liberia, Tubmantown, Bomi, 17 July 2019). The little investment of the CSDF in market structures, hospitals, schools and playgrounds meant that poor and rural women spent much time caring for children and sick members of their family, leaving them with less time to engage in council meetings or public life. It therefore made sense to have a quota for women in the CSDF’s governance, as nothing in the LGA guaranteed women’s presence in this local decision-making structure.

Ultimately, the mobilisation for women’s access to decision-making positions did not start with the LGA. Several key informants pointed out that the inclusion of the gender-mainstreaming chapter in the LGA sought to compensate for the unlucky fate of the campaign for the Fairness Bill. The Bill, presented by the Liberia Women’s Legislative Caucus, stipulated that no gender could have less than 30 per cent of parliamentary seats and less than 30 per cent of political party lists. The idea was to bring women “from their kitchen to the Senate” (Interview 8, UN staff member, 12 November 2018). Several years in a deadlock due to opposition by Members of Parliament resulted in the passing of a watered-down Equal Representation and Participation Bill in 2016 that secured only five out of 73 seats for women in the House of Representatives. The LGA represents a case for how language and reforms that were impossible to achieve at the national level have prospered in alternative, regional and county spaces: “[w]hen the time for the Local Government Act came, certain issues became prominent, such as the election or not of superintendents and chiefs and fights about at which level power lay. Gender was not really a contentious issue and that is why it was easier for us” (Interview 9, women’s organisation representative, Monrovia, 25 November 2018). The fact that there were more contentious issues to negotiate within the LGA regarding the redistribution of power from national authorities to local authorities helped include an inclusive governance chapter in the Act without too much opposition (Interviews 1, 3, 4, 8 and 9). The low profile kept on the mobilisation for women’s participation and representation in local governance had an enabling function to draw in support, and the change of venue constituted the winning ticket for women’s inclusion in government. Ultimately, a contentious process of the devolution of power, where national and local elites sought to retain influence and privileges, provided spaces for women and other marginalised populations to claim rights.

Third, the new opportunities for collective engagement have helped rural women contest international narratives on gender equality that separate the productive and reproductive economy, and that offer a dichotomous understanding of gender. Although the patrilineal descent system in rural Liberia clearly benefited men over their wives, it gave women rights and authority as sisters and mothers, and often as elders, and encouraged women to work together to defend their interests (Moran, 2012). For the international community, substantive gender equality can serve as a means to ensure that social and economic conflicts are solved by capacity building: ‘We need to increase the capacity of the communities to have mechanisms in place to solve key conflicts…. Women have a key role to play in stabilising and making the implementation of the LRA peacefully’ (Interview 10, international NGO staff member, Monrovia, 31 July 2019). For the women in the communities I visited, it was rather about protecting the community land as labourers of social reproduction: “One of the key things that can bring problems or spoil peace is land business. Land business can bring war if not carefully handled and I know how to handle it now” (Focus Group 3, Woman 4, Tubmanburg, Bomi, 17 July 2019).

Women use their identity as mothers responsible for the social reproduction of their community as a political strategy to solve conflict. It is precisely their role as mothers that has enabled them to have a nuanced and deep understanding of the role of land and space in social reproduction:

‘I joined the rural women organisation to empower myself in the agricultural sector and gain training. Secondly, we live in a concession area, and women serve as mothers, and I know women suggestions will be one day needed when it comes to what concession companies should do for us citizens.’ (Focus Group 5, Woman 3, Buchanan, Grand Bassa, 16 July 2019)

Another woman indicated that “When it comes to peacemaking in the community, the concession company and their employees, the women can play a motherly role” (Focus Group 4, Woman 5, Rural Women Structures of Liberia, Tubmantown, Bomi, 17 July 2019). This relational approach to gender promotes a different model of gender equality, where problem solving is done by involving what is considered the strengths of the different members of the community: “They [men] only serve as advisors to us, but they are not trained to do the work” (Focus Group 4, Woman 3, Rural Women Structures of Liberia, Tubmantown, Bomi, 17 July 2019). One of the young women being trained to be part of the CLDMC stated: “Maybe from the concession development management, I will move on and become a senator” (Focus Group 1, Woman 2, Golodee, Bomi, 17 July 2019). Another woman nodded her head unreservedly and added: “Yeah, from your kitchen to the Senate” (Focus Group 1, Woman 4, Golodee, Bomi, 17 July 2019). This proud claim cannot be taken as an unequivocal account of gender essentialism. Rather, I present these quotes here to illustrate that rural work and its related social reproduction practices shape collective identities that are intimately related to the spiritual and cultural value of ancestral land. Mobilising motherhood as a political identity to protect the community from land grabbing and abuse is testament to the role of community land as a home space that needs to be protected in periods of economic, social and political transition. It is the same political identity of motherhood that was also key during the civil war to forcing the warrying factions to sit at the negotiation table (Alaga, 2011; Moran, 2012; Medie, 2020). In sum, these reforms have opened spaces for meaningful discussions on what feminist peace means within the contours of reforms that promise to transform Liberian society and other power imbalances, such as struggles for the devolution of power from the federal government in Monrovia to the counties and communities, and the tension between the recognition of ancestral collective land and land privatisation, all while the country reintegrates into the neoliberal global political and economic system.

Conclusion

Through a case study of the creation and implementation of the LGA and the LRA in Liberia, this article has shown that although national reforms undertaken in post-war countries have limited effects on correcting inequalities and marginalisation because they are embedded within the contours of a global neoliberal economic and historical system, as well as a local patriarchal social model, they can also provide opportunities for feminist mobilisation and feminist peace, with social reproduction at its core. A first, feminist political-economy reading of the reforms has argued that they are sites of struggle between the aspirations for national transformation and the reproduction of existing socio-political cleavages, with a particular focus on (certain) women’s political, socio-economic and gender oppression. As such, the consequences of the implementation of gender provisions in these reforms need to be understood as a set of situated practices within a local patriarchal system embedded in a global neoliberal economic and historical arena. While these reforms create transnational connections between feminist activists and open windows of opportunity for feminist peace, they also reproduce relations of power by prioritising a privatisation process through individual rights that is in itself detrimental to gender equality.

A second, post-colonial feminist reading of the acts has also demonstrated that despite the implementation failures and shortcomings, these reforms open new (in)formal spaces for feminist mobilisation and agency in rural settings and, in so doing, are conducive to a feminist peace that has social reproduction at its core. Furthermore, even though any opening must also be seen through an intersectional lens, these reforms have provided women and women’s groups with entry points for a greater engagement with and disruption of existing social orders. A concentration of resources and windows of opportunity has brought material and economic benefits for rural women. At the same time, it has enabled the cultivation of their self-esteem and the promotion of their cultural and spiritual heritage, their understanding of gender equality and their relation to ancestral land.

These findings advance feminist peace literature by specifying the pathways towards a feminist peace that takes social reproduction as a priority, not only enabling a better redistribution of material resources, but also opening spaces for upholding the cultural and spiritual heritage of the most marginalised. These findings are also relevant for policy and practice, specifically, the idea that even if implementation failures persist, there is always the possibility for influence and contestation.

Notes

1

The Liberia Multi-Partner Trust Fund is a financial and programmatic coordination mechanism established in 2018 to address the remaining root causes of fragility in Liberia and to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

2

The United Nations Peacebuilding Fund is the UN financial instrument to fund projects on sustaining peace or on violence prevention, and to catalyse resources across the areas of development, human rights and security.

Funding

This work was supported by the Horizon 2020 Framework Programme under grant number 706888.

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to the Folke Bernadotte Academy’s generous invitation to participate in an academic workshop in New York in January 2020, where I presented the first version of this article. I am also grateful to the special issue editors, Jenna Sapiano and Jacqui True, as well as to Laura Shepherd, Elisabeth Prügl, Hilary Matfess and Maïka Sondarjee, for their generous comments and feedback. Thanks to the three anonymous reviewers and to the editorial team of European Journal of Politics and Gender for making the publishing process smooth and generative. My most sincere gratitude to the director of the Center for Action Research and Training, Kou G.G. Johnson, who provided high-quality research assistance during my time in Liberia. I extend my gratitude to my interlocutors in Liberia in recognition of their generosity, time, stories, rides and meals shared, without which this project would never have seen the light.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Hedström, J. (2021) On violence, the everyday, and social reproduction, Peacebuilding.

  • Hedström, J. and Olivius, E. (2020) Insecurity, dispossession, depletion: women’s experiences of post-war development in Myanmar, European Journal of Development Research, 32(2): 379403.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hicks, J. (2011) Strengthening women’s participation in local governance, Community Development Journal 46(1): 3650. doi: 10.1093/cdj/bsr035

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