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Uganda: Granting Women Rights to Own Land By : Moses Sserwanga
February 26, 2007 – (The Monitor) The new government proposed land policy is causing a media frenzy as different interest groups position themselves to protect their interests. Paradoxically though, not much is being said about the rights of the traditional disadvantaged sections of our population particularly the women who have for centuries been denied their fundamental rights to own land.
It's well over a decade now since the Reform Agenda aimed at righting the cultural and social economic wrongs that hinder the economic progress of women and other traditional disadvantaged groups was launched by the National Resistance Movement (NRM) political party.
In the 1990s, Uganda adopted various enabling policies and laws, which were specifically geared at promoting women's empowerment and active role in the development of their families and communities. Most of these government policies and programmes recognised the need to improve women's access and ownership of land. However, the challenge still remains especially in terms of effective implementation of these laws and policies for the benefit of the intended people.
Until recently, the land legal framework in this country was of a patriarchal nature intended to maintain the male dominance over women in land resource control and utilisation. In many of our traditional settings, a woman is basically a labourer who is not expected to lay any claim to property rights. In the long term, the woman suffers marginalisation.
This is irrespective of the fact that land use in Uganda, as elsewhere-in Sub-Saharan Africa is primarily an activity of the womenfolk. It is estimated that between 70-80 percent of the country's agricultural labour is supplied by women only 7 percent of whom hold titles to land. Other estimates indicate that only 30 percent of Uganda's women can claim secure access to land or control of its produce.
According to the Poverty Eradication Action Plan (PEAP), women in many parts of the country are unable to own or inherit land due to restrictive practices under customary tenure. In this country, the majority of women are subjected to the oppressive customary law practices.
For instance, in divorce cases under Customary Law women are not considered when division of matrimonial assets, including land is made. This is because divorce amounts to loss of labour by the husband. Similarly, upon the demise of a husband, under Customary Law, a widow does not inherit property including land. She instead holds such land in trust for her children who assume ownership upon reaching the maturity age. Alternatively, the clan or relatives appoint a heir who inherits all the property including land, which the widow has tilled in many cases - for donkeys years. And the cycle continues.
Attempts in the Land Act to redress this situation by proscribing discriminatory practices in land ownership, occupation and use, and further requiring spousal consent to transactions involving family land, have not been successful. Due to ignorance of the law, poor legal aid services, coupled with the "slave" nature of the traditional family set up which keeps women in the backyard, the provisions of the Land Act are but simply ignored.
Now the new land policy seeks to ensure that women are able to gain secure access to land and that all international conventions outlawing discrimination against women are fully complied with. The question then is how will this be achieved?
The government is proposing mainstreaming gender into development planning to improve the status of women. It's proposing reforms in the country's property laws including those considered "gender neutral" to ensure equality and equity in ownership and control of land. However, the most fundamental aspects of the law that need urgent reform are those related to our customs; those which condemned women and other traditionally disadvantaged groups such as the disabled and sick, to perpetual poverty and misery.
The rules of succession call for immediate attention. In succession matters, the law should have the effect of protecting the interests of women in ownership of land. Women should also be fully integrated in all decision-making structures and processes relating to access and use of land. The new legal regime should also protect matrimonial land rights of spouses both within and outside marriages.
At the same time, it's important to note that there is a significant danger facing pastoral communities occupying dry lands. In these circumstances, the land use system is characterised by territorial expansion, transhumance and competition over grasslands, limited woodlands and watering commons.
Global climate change scientists and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification warn that dry lands are expanding due, inter alia, to changes in climate parameters. This means that the ecological resources on which pastoral communities depend will come under increased stress. This, in turn, will lead to greater conflict and competition over access to these land resources.
This is already happening in the north and northeastern parts of Uganda especially in the areas surrounding Mt. Elgon. The new policy should mitigate the severity of competition and conflict over land resources by providing alternative land for settlement of the pastoral communities. At the same time, the new policy should dissuade such communities (with the help of incentives) to change their land use practices.
There is the issue of HIV/Aids, which has led to colossal economic and social costs for Uganda. For not only does the pandemic lead to a crisis of production and reproduction in agriculture through persistent morbidity of the population, loss of agricultural labour, and disablement of the land administration function, it generates landlessness and poverty through asset transfers, distress land sales and abuse of land inheritance procedures. The new land policy should empower widows and people orphaned by HIV/Aids to access land resources.