A widowed mother of six finds herself in the midst of a dispute over land, and in the process learns how to exercise her property rights.
LUWERO DISTRICT, Uganda – Soon after her husband died, Olivia Nakazi’s troubles began anew. As she struggled to support her six children, the youngest then just two years old, Olivia found herself at the center of a conflict over the very ground she lived on: four acres that belonged to her father-in-law.
Olivia’s husband had no will, nor was there written proof of who owned the land. Her in-laws wanted it for themselves. Painful as it was, Olivia says, it was not entirely unexpected.
“Even before my husband died, I thought there would be some problems,” she says, adding that his relatives had expressed interest in the land “even while he was alive.”
Such disputes are not unusual in rural Uganda, where women’s right to property, though protected under Ugandan law, often is overlooked, abused or ignored.
“Traditionally, ownership isn’t documented, and written documentation of land rights or even wills are new concepts in many communities,” says economist Krista Jacobs, an International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) expert on women’s property rights. Jacobs leads an ICRW program that helps women understand and exercise their property rights in the Luwero District of central Uganda, nearly 50 miles north of the capital, Kampala.
“Women’s ability to use land and other assets often depends more on the relationships they have with their family or community,” she says, “rather than the land being formally registered with the government or registered in a woman’s name.”
For women in developing countries, owning property can be an avenue out of poverty. When they own a plot of land, they can grow food on it. What they reap helps feed their families – improving their nutrition and health – and provides products to sell. Or, when women own assets such as livestock, they have a regular source of milk, eggs and meat that also can be sold at a market and used at home.
“Women who have and control property are more economically secure, have a place to live, can more easily start or grow a business and can better care for their families,” Jacobs says. “Women with land and property have more resources to move themselves, their families and their communities out of poverty.”
Property rights in Uganda
In Uganda, women’s right to own land and other property was solidified in the 1995 constitution, the country’s third since its independence from Britain in 1962. The constitution also defined the types of ownership that are legally recognized. Later legislation described how constitutional regulations were to be enacted, upheld women’s property rights and clarified the rights of landlords and tenants.
But reforming Uganda’s land ownership system has not been without controversy. It’s been marked in part by tenants’ claims that landlords – and the government – want to kick them off their property in order to consolidate it for sale or lease. And as property values have increased in recent years, Ugandan women like Olivia are being thrown off their land by in-laws, local landlords or even their husbands. Often ignorant of their rights, many women end up destitute.
To address this, ICRW has teamed up with Uganda Land Alliance (ULA) to arm 20 volunteers – referred to locally as grassroots paralegals – with skills to mediate conflicts like the one Olivia faced. Working in partnership with ULA, ICRW developed training curriculum to help strengthen paralegals’ effort to educate communities about women’s legal right to own property and act as liaisons to help women resolve land disputes. ICRW is also guiding ULA on how to monitor the effectiveness of the endeavor.
When the program began in 2009, an ICRW survey found that most Luwero District residents believed that a married or single woman had the right to own property and have her name listed on the necessary documentation. However, on average, Jacobs says residents were ambivalent about women receiving property after a divorce or allowing widowed women living with HIV to inherit land from their husbands.
ICRW also discovered that most don’t understand Uganda’s laws that define who owns what and describe responsibilities and rights over property.
Now a year into ICRW’s three-year effort with ULA, Jacobs says that paralegals are becoming a go-to resource for residents, especially women whose conflicts regarding property weren’t being addressed.
For Olivia, holding on to her land in her village of Kibike was a matter of right for her family. Jacobs says her situation reflects one of the more common land disputes over ownership.
It isn’t unusual for a father to give his son a piece of land to cultivate and build a home – a transaction that’s usually made verbally. If the son dies, it’s not always clear whether the land is part of his – or his father’s – estate. And if he leaves behind a wife? Ugandan law states that women have the right to live on their matrimonial land, Jacobs says.
“It’s not so much that the law is unclear,” she says. “It’s that there’s so little awareness and observance of the law and of women’s rights. Nor is there much documentation of ownership or of how the land can be used and by whom. That’s what contributes to these messy disputes.”
A leader intervenes
In Olivia’s case, an eviction notice loomed. So she turned to her community’s leader, Richard Ssali, a paralegal trained by ULA and ICRW.
She says Ssali told her family members “that if they kick me out, that would be against the law.”
With Olivia’s dispute headed to court, Ssali managed to bring family members and Olivia to mediation. Eventually, the family agreed to provide 1½ acres of the four-acre plot for Olivia to live on. To avoid future problems, Ssali referred her to a local non-governmental agency that deals with land rights. They in turn got Olivia’s family members to sign an agreement that she and her children wouldn’t be kicked off the property.
Ssali says he has noticed a difference in his community since paralegals have become available.
“Some women have started having their own property in families. And some men are starting to give women their rights,” he says. “From way back they never allowed women to have property. But now they are seeing the advantages of women having property.”
Olivia used income she earned from a small business she started to build a home on the plot. Finally, she felt secure.
Despite her struggle to retain the land she had lived on for years, Olivia says she never thought of leaving – an option many women in similar circumstances feel they must take. Many choose to return to their native villages with no land, no home and no support from in-laws after the death of a husband.
When asked why she decided to stand firm and fight, Olivia glanced at her children.
“I was determined to stay here because this is my children’s home,” she says. “This is where they live.”
Photojournalist David Snyder covered this story for ICRW in Uganda. ICRW Writer/Editor Gillian Gaynair contributed from Washington, D.C.