6 August 2020
ClientEarth spoke to Julie T B Weah who works for the Foundation for Community Initiatives (FCI) as the Executive Director in Liberia. She has spent a decade working to improve women’s lives in rural areas by advocating for their rights to land ownership and equal participation in forest governance. ClientEarth works with FCI to run gender training and workshops as part of the legal working groups conducted with communities in Liberia, which seek to ensure that women’s legal rights and their interests are fought for.
Could you tell us a bit more about your work on forest governance and gender rights in Liberia?
Before our work, community land ownership lacked transparency and accountability and left rural people and the environment paying the price. I have loved spending my career reforming this sector to protect women’s legal rights and in doing so, ensuring the community and our forest can prosper harmoniously.
How are the women you support engaged with?
From my point of view, the main way to help engage and support women in our communities is through access to information and training. We provide safe workshops to help them actively participate in discussions at a community level, and a national level, to inform them not only on natural resource management, but also on how they can benefit from the law autonomously.
Could you tell us about what change you have seen?
I believe the main thing to have changed is the everyday attitude in the communities. Since FCI and ClientEarth have been involved you rarely see men-only meetings, and there is a contagious energy of empowerment amongst the women. It's rewarding to see these women armed with information, influencing decisions and paving the way for the next generation of girls.
From your point of view what is the effect of deforestation and logging on women specifically?
There is widespread recognition that women suffer disproportionately as a result of climate change, and unfortunately, our communities in Liberia are no different. When logging rights are given to a company, women are instantly in a disadvantaged position because they are the ones that have to move their families, find alternative resources and sacrifice more for their children. We hope to incorporate this into how we talk about the importance, but also also inequality, of natural resource protection.
How do you negotiate with these logging companies to ensure these communities are protected?
We created bespoke template contracts that communities can use to negotiate a more equitable outcome with developers. The contract includes obligations around employment of community members, whilst also including provisions around development of community infrastructure.
What challenges have you come across in your work?
The first challenge is undeniably the traditional and patriarchal society that Liberia is governed by. All the decisions are in the hands of men, especially those concerning land. Many men think women should not only not be involved, but that their opinions should defer to them. We, alongside ClientEarth, are setting up care giving policies to help manage some of these difficulties to enable women to have more of a voice.
Secondly, the law itself is a barrier to change. The laws exist, but are often written in a way that deny rural people the opportunity to reap the benefits. ClientEarth helps them understand the law so that the government can’t abuse their rights and can’t profit from their injustices.
What is next for your work in the next six months?
We believe the most structured and sustainable way to go about capacity building is training. The one positive aspect to come out of Covid-19 is the development of our online training, which we will focus on in the next six months. As internet access for remote people can be difficult, we are developing online resources that can be shared more easily amongst Whatsapp groups!
Thanks so much for your time Julie.