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When Gaby wakes up, she goes to work in the fields. At 63, her body no longer bears the weight of agricultural work. She has been weakened by years of long days plowing, coupled with poor living conditions and poor access to health care. At the end of the day she goes back home and cooks for the household. She works to feed her niece and five of her niece’s nine children who live with her.

Gaby is my aunt—my father’s older sister. Her story would be my story if I had been born in the village like 80% of my family.

If Gaby had had adult children, they would have taken care of her so she would not have to work in the field. That’s how it works in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But Gaby divorced and has no children.

The fields where Gaby works do not belong to her. She rents them from the chief of the locality where she lives, far from her native village. The current law on land ownership states that everyone has the right to land by purchase or by inheritance. But this provision is only known and respected in large urban centers. For people in rural areas land is managed by traditional chiefs. In the custom of Gaby’s tribe in the Équateur Province, inheritance is only for men.

If Gaby had been able to inherit land following the death of her father, she would not be in this situation. She would have inherited part of a 200 hectare palm oil plantation that our family has owned for generations. She could plow her own fields and sell products from cultivating her own land. She could use that money to get treatment for her ailments at the main hospital of the region, which is located more than 300 kilometers from her home village.

The difference between my life and Gaby’s is that my father sent me to school just like my brothers. When Gaby grew up in the 1940s and 50s, only the men of the village went to school. Her father, my grandfather, wanted all of his children to go to school—a first in the village. But Gaby, like some of her siblings, preferred to stay home and take care of her father and work in the palm plantation rather than study 250 kilometers from home.

When Gaby divorced her husband, she returned to her family empty-handed. When her father died, she had nothing, according to the customary law. Her older brother, now deceased, became the main administrator of the inheritance from their father. His male children now manage the family plantation and land. The legacy is handed down from father to son. It’s tradition, and it’s just the way it is.

The first time I met Gaby I was 16. She was sick and my father told her to come to the capital so she could get decent medical treatment. She was so kind and amazing, we didn’t want her to go back to the village after her treatment. We kept her five years more than she intended to stay. But she insisted on going back to the land she knows better.

Even though Gaby comes from a wealthy family, she will die poor and sick. She lives on donations from her brother, sisters, nephews, and nieces. Too proud and embarrassed to ask for money or assistance, she prefers to fade away rather than disturb her family, refusing to become a weight for them.

Gaby’s destiny could have been my destiny. It is the destiny of my cousins, nieces, and the majority of women living in the rural area in my country. But it doesn’t need to be.

Women like Gaby are the foundation of the family. They must have access to land just as men do.

Our customs must evolve and recognize the contributions of women. Women represent a real hub of the economy of our country. If women own land, there will be less need to import subsistence goods.

On the environmental front, women are crucial in the fight against deforestation. Currently, when land can no longer be cultivated, women are obliged to burn the forest and cultivate in the space cleared. When they own their land, they won’t need to burn the forest. Instead, they will use sustainable farming techniques, putting less pressure on the forest and natural resources.

This is my fight. With the support and help of my friends, I am conducting an advocacy project to reform the current land law. We want the laws to protect women’s land ownership in rural areas, where custom is now the only legal rule.

We are working so that women like Gaby can own their own land and become financially independent. We are working so that women can easily transmit their knowledge of the culture of the earth to the next generation.

Afy Malungu is a contributor from Democratic Republic of the Congo. This piece was originally published on World Pulse. Sign up to get international stories of women leading social change delivered to your inbox every month here.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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