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The impact on women of Uganda’s land policy

Written by: on 5th November 2010

Ugandan business women Rose Sanyu and Milly Kinene sell baskets in Kampala and use profits to build themselves houses.

The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), a Geneva-based international housing rights watchdog, today released a “report card” examining Uganda’s national land policy and land reform processes and their impact on women. The report, The Impact of National Land Policy and Land Reform on Women in Uganda, was released together with the Women’s Land Link Africa (WLLA), a joint initiative of organizations dedicated to improving women’s land and housing rights in Africa.

The findings in the report are based, among other things, on a survey of women in the districts of Kapchorwa, Luweero and Kampala.  One of the main findings of the study was that while there have been many advances in land reform in Uganda that grant women legal rights, custom and practice are still lagging behind the law, leading to a regular violation of women’s land rights. “Ugandan land laws offer a lot of protection to women on paper – but many women – particularly those in rural areas, have not benefited from these policies in reality,” said Esther Kodhek, COHRE’s Africa Programme Director. “Rural women are still largely at the mercy of customary practices and traditional legal systems that often look to men as sole owners of property – including land.”

Uganda’s 1995 Constitution provides for equality between men and women, including in respect to the acquisition and holding of land.  However, researchers found that while women were aware that there are some laws and policies that protect their land rights, they often did not know the details of such protections or where they can turn to for help.  Only some women knew that according to an amendment to the Land Act of 2004, a man must seek the consent of his wife before he can sell family land.

Ugandan women told researchers that in reality, the legal practice still tends to favour men when it comes to land issues. “The vast majority of women we spoke to do not have land in their own right because, even when they save enough money to purchase land themselves, land agreements are written in their husband’s names and the woman signs only as a witness,” said Sylvia Noagbesenu, COHRE’s WLLA Project Manager.

Ugandan women said that inheritance is a particular challenge, because most often land and property was passed down through the male line, reinforcing women’s exclusion and lack of economic empowerment. “While for some segments of Ugandan society the old traditions are changing, the vast majority of Ugandan women and girls continue to be unable to inherit land and property from their parents,” said Sylvia Noagbesenu. “Even in cases where her husband dies, a woman is not able to keep her marital property or inherit property acquired by her husband, as this is seen as inheritance belonging to male in-laws or to her sons.” Ugandan women, particularly in rural areas, also reported difficulties accessing justice when it came to land disputes due to bribery, corruption, the high cost of bringing cases, and lengthy legal procedures.

Many say the government is trying to address these problems.  The Land Act now provides for the establishment of local council courts that can, among other things, address land disputes. At least one third of the members of the courts must be women. But many women are still left out of the process. “Though there have been some positive advances for women when it comes to their land rights, these policies need to look at the full range of Ugandan women’s experiences and situations,” said Esther Kodhek. “While the Land Act addresses the rights of legal wives in marriage, it does not protect the land rights of widows, divorcees and women in co-habitation.”

WLLA called for amendments to the Land Act to provide adequate protection to widows and women whose marriages may have ended, and to also provide for joint spousal ownership of land in the case of married couples.  They also called for a change in attitudes. “Traditional leaders and women need to join together in a process to identify cultural practices that support the rights of women – showcasing best practices around the country – and question ones that do not provide adequate protection to women,” said Sylvia Noagbesenu. “The government also needs to follow up the good work they have started by launching national educational campaigns to transform widespread social values around women’s land rights, promoting women’s full equality. Only then will we see a real change in women’s lives.”

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