“People are selling land in Northern Uganda at an alarming rate. Sometimes women are surprised to learn that the land they are staying on has already been sold,” these were the comments made by Douglas Peter Okello, the Chairperson of Omoro district at a recent event to discuss the rising challenge of women’s futile attempt to own land.
Okello made the remarks during a civic meeting that was organized by Volunteer Action Network (VACNET) and Women’s Global empowerment Fund at Taks Centre in Gulu town recently. Okello lamented that Uganda’s legal framework that provides for equal access and rights to land for both women and men, has failed to become a reality, leaving women not only landless but also at a serious disadvantage and de-humanised.
The situation is made more serious by the fact that women, who are the primary cultivators of the land, are usually forced to abide by the decisions over land in which they have invested their money and time.
According to Julius Lawino, a 40-year old mother of two children from Paluga Sub County in Lamwo district, men still own and have better access to land than women even when they are not utilizing it. She says the reality of women’s rights to own and access land as enshrined in the 1995 constitution remains a hollow promise.
“A woman of my age, I am not allowed to sit in any family meeting regarding land. It’s the men and old women who sit and decide on what to give me. I only get a report from my husband on what they have discussed,” Lawino narrates.
Lawino says that the problem of land ownership is a bigger battle for the married women as well.
“They say the land belongs to the clan and no woman came with land from her father’s home. So, you keep quiet and let them decide on what to give you. Like for me I cannot do agriculture on a large scale because the land I was allocated was small since I have only two children,” says Lawino.
Grace Auma, a 42 year old mother of five from Pageya in Koro Sub-county Omoro district supported Lawino on her argument over women’s inability to own land.
“I don’t have a voice over the land. I [may] know the boundary, but I don’t have a say over it. If they want to sell, they sell and just notify me not to use a particular part because it has already been sold. When I complained, they started involving me by making me sit and sign documents but not influence any decisions regarding the sale.”
Auma adds that there are many married women who are suffering silently and are unable to access and use land despite the law that allows married women to access and own land in the home where they are married.
“The law is there but the reality on the ground is that women do not own land as it is supposed to be. Men are selling land and sometimes a woman is forced to be present in a land sale she does not agree with,” added Auma.
Research has shown that owning property elevates women to a higher status within the household, allowing more equality and bargaining power. However, for decades, the fight for fairer laws and practices that recognize women’s rights to land ownership, have not yielded the desired change as a result of the patriarchal practices which dominate Uganda’s social economic decisions.
According to Retired Bishop Rt. Rev. McLeod Baker Ochola II, the retired Anglican Bishop of Kitgum Diocese and the Vice Chairperson of Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, (ARLPI), the failure by women to gain greater rights over land, is a moment of reflection.
Bishop Ochola argued that women should now shift focus on fighting for greater access to land than rights for purposes of increasing production.
“We men are nothing in a home without women. Land defines our identity, relations, security and protection. It is our means of livelihood. So let women have the right to give advice to their husbands on land. Let them use it if the concept of ownership brings conflict because land belongs to God,” Rt. Rev. Ochola II said.
Bishop Ochola was supported by Daniel Komakech, a senior lecturer at Gulu University’s Institute of Peace and Strategic Studies. Komaketch argued that time has come for the world to realize that the reality of women’s land ownership in a patriarchal society in a battle that cannot be easily won hence the need to shift the debate to access to increase productivity that benefits the woman and her family.
“For over a decade, the world has talked about women’s land rights in regards to ownership but this is far from the reality we see here. Let activists and advocates consider access which is the immediate need of most of these women who require land to feed their children,” Komakech urges.
He added that women should navigate the legal system and begin to demand for access which is more sustainable.
“In the new era, it is not about ownership, it is about utility. Shift from the debate of ownership to debate of how we maximally utilize the land. Must women continue to confront the men to be added into ownership? It’s now time that women tactically change navigation to productively utilize the land.”
“If it is still difficult to own, then utilize it, sell the produce and buy your own land and register it in your name. This is the women empowerment in a capitalistic society that we are in now,” Komakech advises.
Mousa Bukenya, the Program director at Vac-Net and Women’s Global Empowerment Fund, a women’s rights non-governmental organization operating in Northern Uganda, insists that the softest ways to protect the land is utilization.
“If you are poor, you can’t treat yourself, take your children to school and someone with economic muscle can easily take over your land. So the best way is to empower women to open land and mitigate conflicts to allow access,” Bukenya says.
The 1995 Constitution of Uganda enforces equality between men and women, including the acquisition and ownership of land. However, research from Women’s Land Link Africa reveals that women remain excluded from land ownership due to customs and deeply entrenched cultural habits.
Another factor limiting women’s right to land, according to Women’s Land Link Africa, is that women lack sufficient knowledge about the rights they have under the law to own land. Rural, illiterate women do not even have access to the new constitution which guarantees them land rights.