Can a piece of paper shield women from land grabs in Uganda?

Article Date

14 October 2014

Article Author

Proscovia Nnamulondo

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

As the world celebrates International Day of Rural Women this week, I can’t help but think of Colina, a widow and a farmer I recently met in the remote region of Pader District in post-conflict northern Uganda. Her story represents a struggle that many women and their children in Uganda face: the threat of losing their homes and their land – from which grows their livelihood – simply because they do not have the right piece of paper.

Colina’s distress first started when she lost her husband in 2002. Shortly after, his relatives decided that his brother Adam would inherit the widow and her six children, as is custom among some communities in her area. He soon shifted his existing family – which included three additional wives and their children – to her home in a rural area of Pader district. This is when her nightmare really began.

“It took me five years to regain full control over my land after my brother-in-law tried to evict me and my children,” Colina recounted, lines of bitterness etched into her features. Although clan leaders eventually helped her to win back her land, it was a long and trying ordeal that nearly destroyed her life.

In 2005, disagreements over use of the land and property had escalated and Adam started demanding that Colina and her children leave. He argued that the land on which they lived belonged to the clan because his late brother had inherited it from their father.

Distraught and confused by the new state of affairs, Colina filed a case with the village local council to regain full control over her land. Although the council ruled in her favor, Adam refused to respect the verdict and continued to harass her with threats of eviction. She proceeded to the parish local council which reaffirmed the previous decision. However, when Adam took her to the sub-county court to seek redress, she lost. She believes that sub-county court officials were compromised to rule against her.

“He bribed some members of the sub-county court. He gave one a new cell phone and 30,000 Shillings (about $11) to another,” she told me.

Colina’s experience is one that represents a larger battle faced by women and their families who live in areas where customary law, dictated by age-old, patriarchal tradition, bears much greater influence on individual and community behaviour than the law of the land. She had no written proof that she was the rightful owner – and her husband had not written a will – leaving her very vulnerable to exploitation. Among some communities in northern Uganda, it is a common practice for a man to inherit his brother’s widow or to evict her to claim the land for himself. In Colina’s case, she suffered both.  While widow inheritance was traditionally intended to guarantee continued welfare of the family after the death of the patriarchal head, it is turning out to be a catalyst for property grabbing.

In the end, due to her tenacity and persistence, and a bit of luck, Colina is now cultivating her land without any hindrance. Her case eventually reached the regional High Court – a 100 mile journey away from her village in Pader District – but the travel cost was prohibitive. Instead, the district governor recommended that the clan members mediate. She took his advice and in the end, they ruled in her favour. Colina and Adam signed a memorandum of understanding before clan leaders. A few days later, Adam went back to his home with his entire family.

“I felt so happy when I saw him leave with his wives and children. He had tormented me enough and I felt great relief when he left. A huge burden had been lifted off my head,” said Colina, her eyes glittering with tears of joy.

She is now living off of her crops and earning an income. And she is confident that if she dies, her three sons – and importantly, her three daughters – will be able to inherit the land. Although Colina does not yet hold a legally binding certificate of customary ownership, the memorandum she signed with Adam before the clan leaders clearly shows that she has full control over the land.

Colina has also channelled her negative experience into becoming a force for change in her community. Angered by the continued ordeal women face due to violation of their land rights by their relatives after the death of their spouses, Colina has become part of a drama group supported by a civil society organization that is raising awareness about both men and women’s land rights in Pader District.

The suffering Colina endured and the resilience she developed while pursuing justice motivated her to try to help others. But she and civil society organizations can only do so much, can only reach so many with information about women’s land rights. It is critical that the government meet them half way, certificates of customary ownership in hand. It is the only way to bridge the deep divide between policy and practice for the rural women of Uganda.

Proscovia Nnamulondo works for the Uganda Land Alliance (ULA). Another civil society organization known by its acronym UCOBAC, whose mission is to improve the welfare of women, children and other vulnerable groups in Uganda, joined forces with ULA in 2013 to start the In Her Name Coalition to promote women’s land ownership.