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LIBERIA: Paper Rights Flimsy Protection

Bonnie Allen

SANNIQUELLIE, Liberia, Jan 13 2010 (IPS) - Just a few metres outside the front door of a large white-washed courthouse in north central Liberia, Tete Garwo sells small plastic bags of cold water and passes time by pleading her case to thirsty customers. The 40-year old woman describes how she was forced out of her house by an abusive husband, then deprived of her half of the property.

“The man started cursing me, cursing me,” says Garwo, as she slams the lid of her orange plastic cooler. “The man says he doesn’t want me. He started threatening. I was afraid, so I left.”

Seated on a tree stump outside the courthouse, Garwo describes with a bitter laugh how she sold cabbage and peppers from her garden for years to build a house with her husband of 22 years.

“I give him a good idea that we buy the land and build the house… but my name not on the paper.”

Garwo says she and her estranged husband took their property dispute to a community leader for a traditional settlement and the so-called judge ordered her husband to give her 140 U.S. dollars.

“He’s refusing. He won’t pay,” sighs Tete.

Garwo is well aware that she is entitled to a half of the property – the Inheritance Law passed in 2003 entitles women to own property, or assume property upon divorce or widowhood, regardless of customary or statutory marriage – she has never taken a few steps inside the Circuit Court she spends her days in front of to claim her share of the house and the land it stands on.

“I was not having a lawyer. No money,” Garwo says.

Inside Sanniquellie Circuit Court, the staccato clatter of an old typewriter echoes as the court clerk, Arthur Gaye, flips through a dusty stack of files.

“No cases,” he confirms. “Since (the property law) was amended, no one has actually come to claim on it.”

The 2003 law was widely celebrated by women’s rights advocates, but six years later it is rarely applied in court.

“It’s depressing,” declares Anna Stone, who specialises in gender-based violence issues and women’s rights for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia.

“I don’t think it’s that (women) don’t want to (go to court),” Stone says. “They’ve resigned themselves that it’s just too hard. It’s too expensive to pay lawyer fees. It’s too time-consuming. And, as it drags on, the husband’s family is getting angry and putting pressure on her. Bullying her, basically to drop the case.”

Stone explains that women are also reluctant to exercise their legal rights under the reformed Rape Law of 2005. The number of cases successfully prosecuted in the justice system is very low, even in Monrovia where women are more likely to have been exposed to public awareness campaigns, and have easier access to police, courts, and legal aid services.

In August 2009, the Liberian government reported to the United Nations committee overseeing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Minister of Gender and Development Varbah Gayflor touted the country’s recently established Law Reform Commission, mandated to supervise the revision of Liberia’s discriminatory laws. She also pledged commitment to improving access to justice and providing public education and advocacy to encourage women to engage with the formal justice system.

The CEDAW committee urged the Liberian government to pass legislation condemning domestic violence and female genital mutilation.

But the Sanniquellie court’s records raise the question of whether the formalisation of women’s rights in Liberia is actually empowering women.

During a recent visit to Sanniquellie, Minister Gayflor told reporters that reversing decades of marginalisation can be a slow process.

“There are some (women) who know how to begin sitting, while others can start by running, some can crawl, and some can hold stick to walk.”

Attorney Deweh Gray agrees, “We can’t expect changes overnight.”

As president of the Association of the Female Lawyers of Liberia (AFELL), Gray helped push through the inheritance legislation and is now tackling a domestic violence bill.

Gray says it’s unfair to measure the success of recent law reform only by counting the number of cases on the docket.

“We are encouraging them to go for court, but for decades, Liberian woman have taken their disputes to traditional leaders for community reconciliation,” explains Gray.

These informal hearings by town, clan and paramount chiefs often involve rituals or decisions that discriminate against women, but Gray argues such incidents are becoming less frequent as Liberians become sensitised to new laws that protect women’s rights.

The prominent female lawyer concedes that court cases trigger more tension than a traditional hearing, which makes people nervous in a country torn apart by two decades of sporadic civil crisis.

“It’s true,” acknowledges human rights monitor Jesco Davis, who oversees a Rule of Law project for the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission in Nimba County.

Davis investigates cases in this rural region of Liberia, where more than half the women living in small villages, scattered throughout the dense rainforest, have never gone to school and can’t read nor write.

Initially, Davis predicted that illiteracy and lack of awareness would be the major barriers to implementing legal changes. Now, he blames a culture of fear.

“In our country, when you take somebody to court, you make that person your lifetime enemy. Your greatest enemy,” explains Davis. “That’s why… sometimes we have to go and get some of these cases, and sit down, and fix it at home.”

A few streets away, at the Ganta Concerned Women Centre, a small circle of women huddle around a wooden table to discuss an upcoming workshop. At the centre sits Musu Kardamie, the group’s feisty chairperson revered by every impoverished, downtrodden woman in the area.

“Women will resist (going to court) because why? We have no supporters. We have no backing to go to court,” says Kardamie, as the women around her nod their heads in agreement. “We don’t have the physical cash to fight our cases.”

Kardamie has a list of hardships faced by the Centre’s more than 500 members: widows banished from their house or forced to marry the brother of their deceased husband, abandoned women left homeless because of lack of dowry, or scared women who are deprived of inheritance by brothers who insist women cannot own property.

Kardamie says these women are aware of their rights, but have no resources to register a case, travel long distances to court, hire a lawyer, or pay the inevitable illegal ‘fees’ demanded by court officials.

There is only one private lawyer who takes civil cases in Nimba County, and there are no legal aid services.

“Money. Money is the answer. If you have money, it can do everything easy for you,” says Kardamie emphatically.

Back in Sanniquellie, court clerk Arthur Gaye ambles over to Garwo’s orange cooler, purchases a bag of water for the equivalent of three cents, then turns and walks back into the courthouse. He knows the woman’s plight, but can only shrug his shoulders.

“(Women) have to come to court. The court doesn’t go to them.”

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