Knowing Her Rights

Article Date

15 December 2010

Article Author

By David Snyder

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

After learning about her property rights, Hafswa Nabanjja is compensated for being forced off land she had farmed for decades.

Property Rights

Hafswa Nabanjja spends her days making mats to sell locally.

© Photo David Snyder/ICRW

LUWERO DISTRICT, Uganda – As a poor woman in Uganda’s Luwero District, Hafswa Nabanjja’s land dispute could have had any of 100 different endings – none of them beneficial to her. Looking back, she still remembers the day a new landowner appeared at her door with news she and her husband could not believe.

“The landowner sold the entire land,” Hafswa says. “And even though there were tenants on the land, he told us all we had to leave.”

Faced with eviction from land she and her husband had farmed for most of their lives, the news got worse when they learned that the new landowner had no intention of compensating them for their one-acre plot. While others faced with such a scenario might cede to the pressures of a wealthy landowner, Hafswa had something many in rural Uganda do not: access to grassroots paralegal Eddie Zziwa.

“When (the landowner) decided to chase us off the land, Eddie had conducted a ‘sensitization’ on land rights,” Hafswa says, referring to a training about property rights. “From that we learned, one, that we had rights as tenants; we couldn’t just be kicked off the land. And two, that we should be compensated.”

A local expert mediates

Zziwa is one of 20 local volunteers trained in Ugandan law to provide legal aid and education. ICRW is helping arm people like Zziwa – referred to as “grassroots paralegals” – with skills to mediate conflicts like the one Hafswa faced. Working in partnership with the Uganda Land Alliance (ULA), ICRW developed a training curriculum to help bolster paralegals’ efforts to educate communities about women’s property rights and serve as liaisons during land disputes. ICRW is also working with ULA on how to evaluate the effectiveness of the program.

ICRW believes that solid research is fundamental to creating social change and must be conducted in a manner that engages communities and individuals like Hafswa. ICRW’s work with ULA is rooted in identifying culturally appropriate, pragmatic solutions that allow women to exercise their property rights and advance economically. And in central Uganda’s Luwero District, the trainings that Hafswa attended about property rights appear to be making a difference.

“These trainings have helped women in the community to stand up and talk,” Hafswa says. “Now we are willing to assert our rights, and we are able to sensitize and council other women because we are knowledgeable about these issues.”

Indeed, an ICRW survey found that most residents in Luwero District don’t understand Uganda’s land tenure laws, which essentially define who owns property and what they can do with it.

Women and property rights Uganda

Hafswa plans to buy more land with the income she earns from selling her handcrafted mats.

© Photo David Snyder/ICRW

The country has four land tenure systems. In Hafswa’s case, the land she and her husband farmed was under the “mailo” system. Mailo allows for land owners to pass their land on to their children. Tenants like Hafswa and their descendants pay fees to the owners while they live on and use the land. The owners can sell or rent the land to someone else, but tenants still have the right to remain or be compensated if they leave.

“We’ve found that many people living on mailo lands don’t understand their rights as tenants or are unaware that the land is owned by someone outside of the family or clan,” says Krista Jacobs, an economist who leads ICRW’s work on women’s property rights.

Land to call her own

Grassroots paralegals report that tenants are surprised to learn that land owners have rights to the land that the tenants had been living on for decades, Jacobs says.

“This lack of understanding of legal rights and obligations, combined with rising land prices, persuade owners to sell their land, often without regard to their tenants,” she adds. “It puts people like Hafswa at risk.”

However, once Hafswa learned about her rights, she and her husband, with Zziwa’s assistance, arranged to meet the landowner. Despite his reluctance at first to listen to Hafswa’s demands, she and Zziwa ultimately convinced him that he was legally obligated to compensate her for the land she was losing – land that had grown more valuable in Uganda in recent years as property values skyrocketed. Faced with the law, and a tenant unwilling to be cowed, the landowner agreed to the compensation. 

“We left this land and bought in the same parish,” Hafswa says. “We bought two acres.” 

These days, Hafswa plans to put her newfound knowledge of land rights to use. She spends each day weaving small mats and baskets to sell. She uses income from those sales to invest in a small village bank in the hopes of one day buying more land. 

Looking back on her experience, Hafswa recalls why she got a fair price for the land that almost slipped through her fingers: “We were willing to go to every organization for help,” she says. “We knew we had rights, and we were not willing to lose out.” 

Photojournalist David Snyder covered this story for ICRW in Uganda. Gillian Gaynair, ICRW’s writer/editor, contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.