By Allison Tamer, MA student in the Human Rights Studies program at Columbia University
For many people living in Northern Uganda, land is their only means of survival. Land is such a prized possession that disputes over land is a common occurrence, frequently escalating into aggressive and sometimes violent situations. For example, one man in the Amuru district attempted to poison a village’s water source so he could take over the deceased’s land. In 2010, a family in the same district lit another family’s home aflame during the night over a land dispute. This act of violence took the lives of two young girls who were sleeping during the attack.
As land conflicts intensify in this region, the situation for women and their right to land seems to be getting worse. Gender and socio-cultural factors compounded with the aftermath of the two decades of civil war in Northern Uganda has made the struggle for women’s right to land more difficult.
Women’s land rights are protected under Uganda’s 1995 constitution and the Land Act 1998, which defines the types of land ownership that are legally recognized. In Northern Uganda, however, the majority of land ownership is under the customary tenure system and is typically passed from one generation to another. This type of land ownership is guided by informal rules that are reinforced by the Acholi traditional clan structure. This means that land is under the custody of clan heads (i.e., family heads) and elders, who are almost always men. Often times, male clan leaders refuse to grant their female relatives land ownership, as they believe that land should be transferred through male heads of household.
The customary land tenure system makes it difficult for women to navigate and advocate for their land rights. Many widows, divorcees and separated women are denied land by their own relatives, and live, often with children to support, in misery and destitution. In a non-industrialized region with low unemployment, having nowhere to farm means no food on the table or money for children’s school fees
This summer, I worked with Charity for Rural Development (CHAFORD) in Gulu, Uganda. CHAFORD teaches women how land ownership can improve their livelihood and how they can protect themselves from unforeseen circumstances such as divorce or widowhood. CHAFORD formed one group of about twenty-five women in Attiak, a sub-county in the Amuru district, and provided them with a safe outlet to discuss their land rights and receive educational training in the value of land ownership.
CHAFORD understands that women must have the economic means to purchase land in order to truly exercise their rights to land. Therefore, CHAFORD works with women in various ways to increase their income through training in various vocational skills, providing seedlings and facilitating village savings and loans associations so that the women can buy land.
During the summer, I met Alice, an active member of CHAFORD’s land rights group. She was the first and only member of the group to purchase land. When I spoke to Alice, she explained to me how the land rights group inspired her to follow through with her goal of purchasing land. CHAFORD’s staff, along with the women in her land rights group, motivated her to start a butchery business so that she could obtain the income necessary to buy land. Two years later, she purchased a piece of land under her name. She said that she hopes her two daughters will follow her example and own land one day too.
CHAFORD takes small steps to create change in the communities where they work. While there are many local NGOs working in Northern Uganda, few are working specifically on land rights for women. In addition, many NGOs including CHAFORD are quite young, and lack the resources and institutional capacity to tackle women’s land rights in a consistent and long-term way.
Women in the Acholi sub-region of Northern Uganda encounter multiple barriers in claiming their land rights. The most significant obstacles to securing women’s land rights can be found within the customary tenure land system. Women’s land rights will not improve until there are effective, long-lasting solutions to overcome the many dimensions that impede women’s access to land. Until this is done, local NGOs in Northern Uganda will continue to struggle to secure women’s land rights.
Allison Tamer is a M.A. candidate in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. She was a participation in the Institute for the Study of Human Rights Graduate Student Volunteer Program in Gulu, Uganda this summer.