Sometimes the worst form of violence doesn’t reveal itself until the bullets stop flying. Fatu Bonah had helped support her family for years on her husband’s fertile land. She was his second of four wives. There are two systems of marriage in Liberia; a civil marriage system administered through clergy who strictly recognize monogamy, and a customary system that allows men to take multiple wives. Under customary law, the additional wives become their husband’s legal property. Under the rule of dictator Charles Taylor, bullets flew often:
After watching the murder of her husband and his three other wives by Charles Taylor’s rebels, Fatu Bonah and her seven children fled into the dense forest to hide. “The rebels burned down our home and when I returned my in-laws had taken the land,” she says. “I went to the town chief, who tried to resolve it, but the family refused, saying they had already taken over the land.” (From the Inter Press Service News Agency)
In a land founded by freed slaves, and where the current president’s nickname is “The Iron Lady,” the women are accustomed to fighting for freedom, in all its forms. The same story reports that in 2003 the Association of the Female Lawyers of Liberia (AFELL) successully advocated for reforms recognizing inheritance rights for all wives and their children in situations like Bonah’s. One estimate, cited in the article, counts one third of Liberia’s 3.5 million people as disinherited women and children.
Today, AFELL continues to support those millions by tracking the new law’s implementation, as it encounters resistance from patriarchal institutions that are entrenched, yet younger than their beneficiaries typically admit:
“What our work is now is to bring this law back to the people,” says Deweh Gray, AFELL’s determined president. “The challenges are great because people had this life for over a century and getting them to, especially the male folks, to accept this change, what they see as a radical change in their lives is a difficult thing. ”
By taking on these political, social, and cultural battles AFELL is building gender-neutral institutions for property as only locally based organizations can. Property rights institutions literally double their leavening effect upon entrepreneurs, when they do not exclude half the human race. Such institutions are key to keeping the bullets from flying as they once did, and sometimes still do.