Not up for grabs: protecting women’s land and property rights in Uganda

Article Date

26 March 2014

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

It wasn’t yet noon, but a group of women had already gathered under the shade of a giant Jacaranda tree next to the clinic. Its purple blossoms scattered in the parched, red earth were the only color in a landscape aching for the rainy season to begin. Just a few feet away from the clinic, an unremarkable ceramic monument the shape of a small skateboard ramp baked in the sun. One of the land rights paralegals I met with that day in early March explained that it marked a mass grave – one of many strewn across Uganda’s Luwero District.

The setting of brutal political violence in the 1980s, Luwero today is a relatively sleepy and impoverished area some 50 miles north of the national capital of Kampala, and is now known more for its pineapples, plantains and cassava than for civil conflict. However, there is another war of sorts plaguing this agricultural region: the fight for land ownership.  And women are facing the toughest battle, which is why I was there.

Over the course of the past five years, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and the Ugandan Land Alliance (ULA) have trained and supported a group of some 40 community members, or ‘Paralegals’, across Luwero District to provide legal aid and provided rights-based education to their neighbors in need. These grassroots legal advisors work to sensitize locals about land and property laws and help mediate land and other disputes when they arise. And in an area where there are more ‘Not for Sale’ signs than ‘For Sale’ signs posted on land plots – due to the frequency of land grabs and fraudulent property sales – they arise all too often.

Despite the sweltering heat, dozens of paralegals and their female ‘clients’ (along with several community stakeholders involved with the program such as police officers, local leaders and other ‘persons of influence’) had shown up in their finest suits and traditional dresses to discuss progress made and challenges encountered in protecting women’s land rights, much of which is documented in  a new ICRW evaluation summary report  and in a brochure about the success of the program.

Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in a small, concrete room at the village clinic, they enthusiastically praised the program and passionately discussed thorny scenarios they have faced, raising tough questions, expressing convictions about the need for continued support.  How do I settle a land inheritance dispute when a deceased husband had more than one wife? What if a husband has left more than one will (encouraging and coaching men and women to write clear, legally-recognized wills is a key component of the Paralegals program)? What if he has left no will? They were all unanimous in their request to keep the program running.

Men and women alike rely on small-hold farming as a means of survival in Luwero District and everyone is at risk of illegal land grabs. Yet women are most vulnerable to losing their ability to access their own land and property, and in effect, their source of a livelihood. While statutory laws do exist that protect women’s rights to land ownership and inheritance, in practice, age-old customs often trump the official legal system.

Traditionally, areas that observe ‘customary law’ only allowed men the right to own and inherit land. Today, there are national laws on the books giving women the same rights even where customary law is still dominant. Nonetheless, traditions persist meaning that women and children continue to face illegal evictions from their own land and property, often by male relatives.

While not directly affected by this dynamic, Nassali’s life has been greatly affected by it. I met Nassali, along with her paralegal representative, Rehema, after the day’s meeting as the heat finally began to subside. The two women took turns telling me the story of Nassali’s mother.

Nassali’s father recently passed away, and soon after, her brother began selling off pieces of what was now legally his mother’s land – without her permission and without giving her any of the proceeds.  Although she now lived in another village, Nassali left her own 9 children and husband to move in with her mother in a last ditch attempt at preventing her brother from leaving the matriarch completely homeless. That was her only strategy. Not only was Nassali’s brother unjustly appropriating his own mother’s land; he was also the chairman of the local government council.

“The only person that my mother knew she could report the problem to was her own son, the same person who was taking her land,” Nassali explained.

Then Rehema walked into her life one fortuitous day while doing her village land rights sensitization rounds.

Soon after learning of Nassali’s plight, Rehema called a meeting for the family members, including her and her brother, to discuss the issue.  He refused to attend. Putting her training to work, Rehema then contacted another government body linked to local courts known as an Area Land Committee, which had also been sensitized on women’s land rights as a part of the Paralegals program.  Eventually forced to go to court, her brother finally acquiesced and gave up his claims to the land.  Nassali’s mother is now living peacefully in a newly built house on her land.

“If I hadn’t met Rehema, my mother probably would have just died,” said Nassali, who had no choice but to eventually leave her mother’s home to care for her own children. “This situation happens a lot, but because of the paralegals, they now fear that they will not get away with it.”

Nassali told me that her own sons and daughters understand and are proud of what she has done for their grandmother, and that they disapprove of their uncle’s behavior.

“That means a new generation is learning,” Rehema said, finishing Nassali’s sentence.