Gender Roles in Economics

The division of agricultural labor in the production of rice, the staple subsistence crop, assigns the clearing of new fields and the burning of brush to men, while women are responsible for hoeing, planting, weeding, scaring away birds and small predators, and most of the harvesting. Since the period of their involvement with the major crop is quite limited, men are free to pursue other economic activities, such as growing cash crops (rubber, citrus, coffee, or sugar), hunting, and wage labor. Indeed, it is possible that the long history of male labor migration from this region is a consequence of the fact that women have a greater role in agriculture in the southeast than in other parts of Liberia (Moran, 1986). Women also grow cash crops, such as maize, peppers, eggplant, pumpkin, greens, and other vegetables, interplanted in rice fields. Very little domestically produced rice reaches the market (urban populations subsist on rice imported from abroad), but women sell other surplus crops and keep the profits for their own use.

Women dominate the wholesale and retail trade of locally produced foodstuffs in Liberia, while men may specialize in selling raw materials to foreign firms (particularly rubber and palm oil). Professional market women travel long distances on their own to bulk products from many small female producers and transport them to the urban centers along the coast. For many women, the transition from farming to marketing comes with divorce or widowhood; once freed from the obligations of a lineage wife, they can manage their own affairs, support their children, and maintain their own households. Often these women enter informal nonresidential relationships with "husbands" who have not paid bridewealth and so have no legal claim over them. As one woman put it to me, "If my husband sees money, he gives me a bag of rice. If not, the market feeds me" (Moran, 1990, p. 128).

However, "civilized" Glebo women are unable to sell in the public marketplace without jeopardy to their status. In fact, local gossip often circulates about women who "used to be civilized" but are now, due to economic adversity, selling in the market. The most visible sign of such a loss of prestige is when a woman exchanges Western-style dresses, which are never worn by market vendors, for the two wrapped cloths or lappas. Many civilized women contribute to and even support households with an almost clandestine marketing system of selling surplus produce from a small table by their back door. Others send their children to sell homemade cookies and similar treats in schoolyards or at major intersections (Moran, 1990). A few highly educated women occupy professional positions as nurses, clerks, or teachers in the cash sector.

Movable property can be inherited by both men and women, with personal items like cloth, household equipment, tools, and furniture transmitted from father to son and mother to daughter. Use rights to farmland and house plots are activated through membership in a patrilineal clan. Upon the death of a man, conflicts sometimes emerge between the claims of his wife and those of his patrilineal kin; in theory, the widow has no right to the house or the communal property of the marriage unless she can demonstrate that items were bought with her own earnings. At one time, a widow was "inherited" herself, coming under the protection of a male relative of her deceased husband, usually a younger brother, unless she preferred to refund part of the bridewealth and return to her own kin group. If the house and other property are inherited by an adult son, he is responsible for the support of his mother and any other cowives in their old age. Liberian women married under statutory law or in one of the Christian churches are entitled to inherit property from their husbands, but often their legal rights are not enforced by local officials. Various attempts have been made to pass national legislation regulating spousal rights, most recently in 2002.

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