T H E   R E P U B L I C   O F   T H E   M A R S H A L L   I S L A N D S

An K r Ael n̄ Kein

(These Islands Belong to the Women)

A Study of Women and Land
in the Republic of the Marshall Islands

Kristina E. Stege

Land is treasured in the Paci c, but it is often forgotten how precious it is to women. The modern emphasis on commercial agriculture, extractive and other commercial activities has often marginalized women, sometimes robbing them of their roots, status and authority. Governments, mirroring church and colonial administrations, have, for the most part, disregarded women’s attachment to, and dependence on, land.

There is nonetheless an increasing acknowledgement regionally and nationally that gender equality in resource management is not only fair but also economically and socially desirable. This acknowledgement is in part fuelled by the adoption of international human rights conven- tions and platforms such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). However, translating human rights into national and local contexts is not always easy and can elicit negative reactions.

An alternative or complementary means to promoting a gender lens in land matters is to examine women’s cultural roles, past and present, in land tenure and management. This three- country study seeks to do this by focusing particularly on matrilineal areas where it was assumed that women, potentially, play stronger roles1 and have greater influence in land affairs.2

Matriliny has disappeared in some parts of the Pacific. Remaining matrilineal areas have not been well studied in terms of women’s relationship to, and roles with respect to, land. 3 The last publication dedicated speciffically to women and land was published 20 years ago.4 There is therefore a lack of updated and detailed information on women’s roles with respect to land in general and on matrilineal land in particular.

To our knowledge, there has been no comparative assessment or regional mapping of matriliny in the Pacific.5 This study clearly cannot fill this gap, but we hope that it will generate greater interest and closer attention to women’s decision-making and resource management roles in local communities, in both matrilineal6 and patrilineal areas. Although the authors of the three studies draw on anthropological work, this report is not driven by purely academic concerns. It is de- signed to provide a snapshot of the status and influence of women in selective matrilineal areas across the region today in order to inform policy makers and encourage further applied as well as scholarly work on the relationship between women, land and natural resources in the region. We consider this important for local, national and regional level policy making and implementation.

Additional objectives of the studies are to 1) better understand the relationship between women’s roles with respect to land and their roles in leadership in matrilineal areas, past and present, and 2) evaluate the impact of current land policies and laws on women’s access to, man- agement and ownership of land.

across the region today in order to inform policy makers and encourage further applied as well as scholarly work on the relationship between women, land and natural resources in the region. We consider this important for local, national and regional level policy making and implementation.

Additional objectives of the studies are to 1) better understand the relationship between women’s roles with respect to land and their roles in leadership in matrilineal areas, past and present, and 2) evaluate the impact of current land policies and laws on women’s access to, man- agement and ownership of land.

Executive Summary

This report examines women’s traditional rights and responsibilities with respect to land and land distribution in the Marshall Islands. It also seeks to relate those rights and responsibilities to contemporary governance practices, with a particular focus on addressing issues of land-related con ict.

The passage of the Land Registration Act in 2003, in the context of the general legal framework surrounding land tenure, is also examined in terms of its potential impact on women’s rights and access to land.

The basic tenets of traditional Marshallese land tenure, particularly as relates to women, include:

The collective ownership of land by lineage groups (the bwij), the primacy of matrilineal rights to land within the lineage group, the placement of lineage groups and rights to land into a two-tiered social structure that determined differing levels of usufruct rights, the underlying principle of reciprocity that served as a behavioral guide for all members of the system, and a flexible application in practice of strict customary principles.

Within this matrilineal-based system, women possessed both authority and influence directly tied to their role as the primary link to land and land rights. The locus of this authority was within the lineage group whereas men, in a complementary manner, took on the more public persona of lineage head acting on behalf of the group.

Women in the chiefly class were accorded the title of lerooj. Female chiefs did not traditionally exercise the direct power wielded by a paramount chief, or iroojlaplap. Rather, these duties were left to junior male relatives. Similarly, at the commoner level, the alap headship of a lineage generally fell to a man. Male lineage heads, nevertheless, were expected to consult with their senior female relatives on decisions a ecting land and family.

Contemporary land tenure in the Marshall Islands de es simple description. Social and economic changes, particularly in the last quarter century, have challenged the resiliency and exibility of traditional tenets of the system. Roles and responsibilities in relation to land, including those of women, are changing in a variety of ways. Strains on the overall system are most evident in Majuro, the nation’s capital and urban centre.

Majuro landowners manage their landholdings in increasingly diverse ways that may or may not incorporate such basic tenets of traditional tenure as the primacy of matrilineal land rights within the lineage group. Disputes over title are common and often end up in the court system. The intense commercialisation of land as well as other pressures on the system of tenure such as rapid urbanisation, immigration, and over-population provide fertile ground for conflict.

In comparison, the landowners on the rural atoll of Namdrik demonstrated a more established consensus regarding the primacy of matrilineal rights within the land tenure system. Although disputes over titles and boundaries occur, they rarely end up in the courts.

Women are taking an ever more public role vis-à-vis land in today’s society. Many women chose to fulfil the duties of lineage head themselves rather than defer the responsibility to a male relative.

Land provides Marshallese women with a critical power base in a modern political environment dominated by men. At the family and community level, women participate directly in land-related decisions. The continuing challenge is translating this empowerment at the local level into representation and a voice in land development issues on the national stage.

In December 2003, the Marshall Islands government created the Land Registration Authority (LRA) to provide a legal framework for the people of the Marshall Islands to voluntarily register their interests in land. The stated aim of the LRA was to bring clarity to the issue of land ownership and to facilitate investment in and development of land in the republic.

To date, the overall impact of the program on land tenure in general, and women landowners in particular, has been minimal due to the lack of participation in the program. The vast majority of landowners interviewed for this study did not view the LRA as a useful mechanism in determining land rights. Lack of knowledge about the program remains a major problem for the o ce. And, for those interested in registration, costs are often prohibitive.

Any individual, male or female, with a claim to a piece of land may submit an application for registration to the LRA. The application must be signed by all “senior land interest holders” to the property in order for the application to be processed, i.e., Iroojlaplap, Iroojerik, Alap and Senior Ri Jerbal. The act further specifies that reference to “Iroojlaplap” rights is not restricted to men but includes female chiefs (“Lerooj”) where applicable.

Lack of investigation into current land tenure realities and the potential impact of the program in the face of these realities has been a major aw of the land registration program. Plans to conduct a review with funds from an ADB technical assistance have yet to be implemented.