Policy makers and the public need to appreciate the fact that, like men and other groups, women deserve equal rights to land in terms of access, ownership and control. In the medium to long-, this has positive socio-economic and political implications.
In Uganda, women supply 70-80 per cent of agricultural labour yet only 30 per cent of them control the proceeds from land and their control and ownership of land is severely limited for subsistence purposes. Women own a paltry portion of land with figures ranging between 7 per cent and 20 per cent
For a long time, there has been a policy-practice gap on women’s land rights.
As a result, women face significant barriers to owning land due to some cultural beliefs and practices such as inheritance which largely favour men.
Formally, although provisions of the Succession Act which discriminate against women were annulled by courts of law, many widows and female children continue to be relegated to secondary beneficiaries of estates of their deceased spouses and parents respectively.
In many cases, the matrimonial home and other property pass to the deceased’s ‘legal heir, who is often the closest male descendant to the deceased under customary practices.
This is further perpetuated by the fear among many Ugandans to write wills and distribute their property before death.
Despite such discrimination being deemed unconstitutional, not much progress has been made in trying to amend the Succession Act itself.
Whilst the lack of government support for the land co-ownership clause for spouses during the making of the Land Act was a setback for women, there have been some signs of progress.
An amendment to the Land Act in 2004, for example, suggested a minimal shift in that it made spousal consent necessary for the transaction on family land, although this did little to change the reality that men continue to dominate the decision-making process.
The Act reads in part that ‘any decision taken in respect of land held under customary tenure, whether in respect of land held individually or communally, shall be in accordance with the customs, traditions and practices of the community concerned, except that a decision which denies women or children or persons with a disability access to ownership, occupation or use of any land or imposes conditions which violate articles 33, 34 and 35 of the Constitution on any ownership, occupation or use of any land shall be null and void’.
Clauses such as the above provide a ray of hope for the civil society working to improve women’s access, control and ownership of land. Women land rights movements have an uphill task to bridge the gap between law and practice by overcoming negative cultural systems and pursuing a rights-based strategy to land tenure for women.
What is obvious is that population pressures, market inequalities and the appetite for land coming from large international firms are likely to increase tensions surrounding land tenure and further affect the strides women are making to own and control land.
Uganda Land Alliance (ULA) believes increasing women’s access to and ownership of land would boost agricultural production, women’s social standing, wellbeing and basic empowerment as well as form part of a larger movement to improve the status of women across Uganda.
Empowering women on land issues would give room for changes in the way land governance functions at the various levels, give them opportunity to contribute to the country’s social, economic and political agenda, control and own productive assets and household property and increase solidarity and joint action with other women to challenge and address the underlying resource and power constraints at household, community and local governance levels. This is possible and has been tasted.
For instance, ULA’s sensitisation programmes on land rights for Women in Kibaale district, Western Uganda since 2010 have yielded some enticing fruits.
A good number of women have improved their social wellbeing. Many women were primary beneficiaries of the different training sessions held by ULA in the district since 2010. Some of the women are beneficiaries of a modest fund created by ULA to enable them borrow money through groups to start income generating projects that can translate into increased access, control and ownership of land.
Patricia Ngonzi, 38, a mother of four and a resident of Karuguuza Trading Centre, Kibaale Town Council entered her new house at the end of last year after attending various training sessions on women’s land rights organised by ULA.
The house seats on her plot [150X100 feet] which she bought at Shs4.5 million in 2011.
Understanding her rights to land has helped her use the land profitably to the extent of now looking after her family without necessarily having to wait for support from her husband. Many of the women may have been cheated by their husbands or relatives due to ignorance of the provisions in the various laws and policies that address their rights on land.
Supporting women to realize benefits from the gender-sensitive policies and laws requires concerted efforts by government, private sector, civil society and the donor community. Once all of us buy into that, Uganda’s transformation journey will not exclude our mothers.
Mr Owor is the executive director of Uganda Land Alliance.