Ugandan women deserve full rights to land and property

Friday January 8 2016

By Rogers Mugabo

Women and men in Uganda do not have equal rights to land and there is no consensus on whether women should own, access and control land or not. This is because effective laws protecting land, inheritance and property rights of women, including the widowed, divorced, separated or those in cohabitation are missing. Government has been slow in improving equality between women and men through legislating on family laws that would promote gender equality, thus increasing women’s access to matrimonial property and inheritance. But generally, there is lack of clear laws to address equality in land ownership, divorce and marriage. This, therefore, affects women’s economic and social rights. Consequently, women continue to be disadvantaged by prevailing gender inequalities as a result of persistent negative and discriminatory practices.

Majority of Ugandans, including some women, assert that traditionally, land belongs to men, which in my view is incorrect. For example, the traditional and cultural practices of most communities in pre-colonial Uganda enabled both women and men to access land. Neither men nor women owned land; they both had equal access to land. It is only when colonialists introduced capitalism that the issue of men owning land was introduced while women and children were expected to provide free labour to maximise profits. Land and property were appropriated by men as “bread-winners”. Surprisingly today, men continue to be regarded as bread-winners even in circumstances where it is their wives sustaining the families.

Therefore, the assertion that traditionally land belongs to men is a clear evidence of men’s greed for property. Societies in Uganda have conferred different roles and responsibilities to men and women within the households and communities. In general, they have entrusted food production and processing to women but resources such as land needed to meet these responsibilities are vested in men.

Women play a critical role in the sustenance of families, communities and the country’s agricultural sector and they constitute the largest workforce on land where they produce food, engage in small-scale home-based businesses and contribute significantly to the country’s economy. In spite of the significant scientific and technological advancements in all spheres of life, land is still a very important resource for our livelihood.

Long-standing discrimination of women through norms and practices that exclude women from owning, inheriting and controlling land continue to deprive women of land rights, thereby perpetuating women’s economic dependence on male relatives. It is this continued economic dependency of women on men that has maintained in part women’s poverty, prevailing domestic violence, women’s absence in decision-making processes and continued violation of their property rights. For example, women in the oil and gas region of Bunyoro have experienced discrimination in land compensation and sale, especially where government acquired land for the oil refinery. Compensation of households affected was effected from the unfair and unequal consideration of household head, thereby condoning unequal compensation of spouses with women being almost excluded from the processes.

Despite various campaigns, Uganda has not done much to address inequalities faced by women. For instance, Parliament has failed to pass the Marriage and Divorce laws and the Succession Bill. Uganda should move ahead and fully eradicate formal discrimination of women. We should also take meaningful steps to address substantive discrimination by negative cultural practices that has deprived women of land and property. The recent recommendations from the Committee on Economic Social Cultural Rights to Uganda-2015, reiterates the steps Uganda should take.

Whereas I recognise some positive developments that have taken place in terms of law and policy reform in favour of women’s land and property rights such as the National Land policy 2013, the implementation and enforcement of such laws and policies remain a big challenge. A more holistic approach is needed to reform all family laws, and to link the gaps in the law and the practices on the ground, particularly those related to inheritance and matrimonial property and land ownership. The government should take action for meaningful gender equality reforms if Ugandan women are to realise their land and property rights.

Mr Mugabo is a human rights activist and director of programmes at Centre for Economic Social Cultural Rights in Africa.