Irrespective of one’s academic background, thousands of women from across the eight districts of Lango Sub-region remain vulnerable in their bid to access customary land.
The head of governance and advocacy at Facilitation for Peace and Development (FAPAD), Ms Juliet Ebil, says the local cultural norms are both backward and discriminatory, treating women as possessions and denying them rights.
“The issue here is that the cultural leadership is biased towards women in that in most families it is only the boy child that inherits land,” she says.
“So this has continuously made women vulnerable to all forms of abuses but above all kept them in poverty because they cannot produce enough to sustain their livelihood.”
Ms Jayne Frances Offungi, the Lira District education officer, says many women are still facing challenges in accessing, utilising and owning land because of “the type of husband they have, level of contribution in the family, exposure, culture and education.”
According to Ms Margaret Rugadya, a social–legal policy analyst, the basic gender distinctions in land access, ownership and control are remarkably similar across all sub-tenures and across northern Uganda.
The social breakdown, caused by displacement to camps, has certainly weakened the clan’s ability to enforce its traditional rules of protection, she said in her Associates Research Occasional Paper No.4, November 2008.
Prior to the displacement, the family structure protected wives, widows and children against attempts to interfere with their right to use land. This tradition has been threatened in the return situation, Ms Rugadya said.
Ms Rugadya adds that failure to understand and properly interpret customary land laws has led to loss of land. “Many believe that women do not have a say on land related matters. They misinterpret customary laws and cause more conflicts; they have also lost respect for their elders which is distracting from effective enforcement of customary decisions,” she said.
More than a third of the world’s workforce engages in agriculture and in developing countries, women make up 43 per cent of the workforce. But they comprise less than a fifth of landholders, according to BBC.
The situation is made worse by the customary land tenure system which gives cultural leaders more power and control over land.
According to a 2017 baseline survey by Interchurch Organisation for Development Cooperation (ICCO), a Netherlands-based non-governmental organisation, land access remains a problem among women and persons with disabilities in Lango.
The survey indicates that land owned by households constitute 94.69 per cent, male headed households owned 39.2 per cent compared to their female counterparts (31.6per cent).
Mr Lawrence Alot, a resident of Barr Sub-county in Lira District, says some cultural leaders connive with land grabbers to deny widows and orphans access to land.
Ms Ebil says Uganda’s justice system has not been so helpful to women whose rights have been abused.
“Our justice system favours the rich over the poor, so if you are poor you will not seek help in the court of law because of the financial costs that come with it and the dragging of some of these cases,” she says.
Human rights activists suggest that everyone should be given titles to their land and be put under state protection.
The Lira Resident District Commissioner, Mr Robert Abak, on April 28 told a dialogue meeting for cultural leaders in Lira town that government cannot sort out issues related to customary land ownership. He, however, committed himself to ensuring that women have access to land.
But women insist that government by law has to ensure protection of citizens’ property.
“We pay taxes and in return we demand for protection and quality service delivery,” Ms Molly Okello, a food vendor in Lira town, says.
Internationally, women’s rights to land are underlined in several international declarations including the CEDAW 1979, the Beijing Express Declaration 1995 and the Millennium Development Goals 2000.
Uganda’s 1995 Constitution is seen as one of the most gender-sensitive in the region, providing a legal framework for gender equality (ActionAid “Cultivating Women’s Rights and Access to Land”, 2005).