In 2001, after the death of her husband, and her son shortly afterwards, Helen Kongai was left with no money and the threat of losing her land – the land on which she had long lived and farmed. But while Ugandan culture dictates that a husband’s family take back any land after he dies, Helen fought successfully to keep it.
Now, at the age of 50 and a successful farmer, Helen runs a residential training centre from which she has trained thousands in sustainable organic agriculture and offers gender studies lessons in an attempt to bridge the gap between men and women, overcome customary discriminatory practices, and help women gain equal access to land.
Helen’s success has partly been down to the international development charity Send a Cow, which gave Helen a cow, a resource that proved crucial in growing her agricultural business.
As in many countries in the East African region, Uganda suffers from high gender inequality and is currently ranked 116th out of 146 countries on the Gender Inequality Index. At present, women provide 70-80 % of agricultural labour and 90 % of all labour involving food production in Uganda, yet own just a fraction of the land with figures varying between 7% and 20%.
Analysts believe that increasing women’s accessibility to land would boost agricultural production, but the benefits of female land ownership extend beyond just the economic. Owning land can play a critical role in individual women’s social standing, wellbeing and basic empowerment as well as form part of a larger movement to increase the status of women across Uganda more generally.
“It is very, very important for women to own the land”, Helen says to Think Africa Press, explaining that gaining land can be hugely empowering. “Somebody who was not able to say anything can now speak. They have got a voice.”
But although there are no laws expressly prohibiting women from owning land, women face significant barriers to owning land due to cultural tenure systems under which women traditionally do not own land, and the Succession Act under which a widow, unlike a widower, has no entitlement to the matrimonial home after their spouse’s death. Instead, the home and property passes to the interstate’s ‘legal heir’, who is often the closest male descendant to the deceased under customary practices. Despite such discrimination being deemed unconstitutional, no formal changes have been made to the act itself.
“In Uganda, land is owned culturally if possible, but these cultural practices lead to a situation where it is the men that own the land and they never want women to have access” explains Helen. “In our culture, a woman is not entitled to own land in her place of birth, nor is she entitled to own land in the place that she is married.”
“It is a custom thing but legislation can be used to help some things”, she adds.
Indeed, in order to protect women against these discriminatory practices, many campaigned for the inclusion of a co-ownership clause into the 2000 Land Act amendments. However despite efforts from Ugandan women’s organisations, the clause was removed from the amendments after criticism that its inclusion would upset clan cohesion if widowed women were to marry outside the clan. The removal of the clause was met by protests and a public day of mourning.
Inequalities are also compounded by the increased scarcity of land and rising land prices, partly driven by large-scale land acquisitions by foreign companies, which add to the feeling of vulnerability among clan leaders and their perceived need to actively protect their land ownership.
Whilst the lack of governmental support for a co-ownership clause was a setback, however, there have been some signs of progress. An amendment to the Land Act in 2004, for example, suggested a minimal shift in that it made spousal consent necessary for the transaction of family land, although this did little to change the reality that men continue to dominate the decision-making process.
More importantly, however, there have been noticeable changes in the general status, standing and attitudes of women in Uganda over the years, according to Helen. “When Send a Cow was first looking for an agriculturalist to train women [in sustainable organic farming] I was the only one”, she recalls, “but as the years have gone by women have become more aggressive. There are more girls going to school, and not just stopping at primary, but going all the way up, maybe reaching university. Consequently, there are more women occupying higher positions, not only scientific and business roles but also government positions.”
“The greatest challenge is that culturally women have never owned land. Now we have to make them understand [through gender training] that it is okay for women to own their own land. Getting men to understand is also a challenge,” says Helen.
The success of women’s movements in overcoming cultural systems and pursuing a rights-based strategy to land tenure remains to be seen. What is apparent, however, is that population pressures, market inequalities, and the continued practices of large international firms are likely to increase tensions surrounding land tenure and further increase the burdens on female agriculturalists. Whilst legislation can go some way towards easing this burden, it is clear that a change in attitudes is required to end current discriminatory practices.
As Helen suggests, “We need a real opening of people’s minds to the idea that women should also own land.”
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