Women’s rights organisations and policy makers need to try to tackle issues of land governance, investment in land and climate change from a human rights perspective
By Sostine Namanya
Friday, March 8 is International Women’s Day. As we celebrate this day, let us reflect on the current situation of women’s rights to Land.
Women represent the majority of the workforce in agriculture in Uganda (76% against 62% of the male workforce) and are overwhelmingly responsible for the food security of their families. However, their productivity is hindered by gender inequality. The fact they carry an unequal share of unpaid care and domestic work and are less able to access input and training and to travel to markets from remote areas.
Ugandan women’s right to land ownership and use is limited by entrenched patriarchal discrimination, reflected in legislation at different levels. It is estimated that women own between 7% and 20% of the land. As Landesa notices ‘like much of sub-Saharan Africa’ Uganda has a pluralistic legal system combining various sources of law. Pre-independence British law, Ugandan civil law and customary law all figure into Uganda’s legal structure.
Some British law is still in effect in Uganda, particularly in regard to family law. Additionally, customary law figures prominently in the day-to-day functioning of family law and land rights, with wide-ranging impacts on women. Discrimination against women in land ownership and use needs to be seen in a wider context of lack of secure tenure as the majority of the land area in most developing countries up to 90% in some is not covered by a formal land record and secure property rights. Approximately 75% of the world’s population does not have access to formal systems to register and safeguard their land rights.
Formally, although provisions of the Succession Act, which discriminate against women, were annulled by courts of law, many widows and female children continue to be relegated to secondary beneficiaries of estates of their deceased spouses and parents respectively. In many cases, the matrimonial home and other property pass to the deceased’s ‘legal heir, who is often the closest male descendant to the deceased under customary practices.
Despite discrimination against women being deemed unconstitutional, not much progress has been made in trying to amend the Succession Act itself. There is an absence of an inclusive compensation policy on land. Women still face unequal access to control and ownership of land as well as a subordinate position in decision making at the household and community level.
Whilst the lack of government support for the land co-ownership clause for spouses during the making of the Land Act was a setback for women, 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 on family land, although this did little to change men ongoing domination of these decision-making process.
The Act reads in part that ‘any decision taken in respect of land held under customary tenure, whether in respect of land held individually or communally, shall be in accordance with the customs, traditions and practices of the community concerned, except that a decision which denies women or children or persons with a disability access to ownership, occupation or use of any land or imposes conditions which violate articles 33, 34 and 35 of the Constitution on any ownership, occupation or use of any land shall be ‘null and void’.
Clauses such as the above provide a ray of hope for groups working to improve women’s access, control and ownership of land. There is an uphill task to bridge the gap between law and practice by overcoming patriarchal cultural systems and pursuing a rights-based strategy to land tenure for women.
What is also obvious in Uganda is that population pressures, market inequalities and the appetite for land coming from large international firms are increasing tensions surrounding land tenure and further affect the strides women are making to own and control land.
Recognising that women, and in particular peasant women, are suffering the most from the compounded and interlinked impacts of investment in land and patriarchal social norms at all levels. Women’s rights organisations, policymakers and other stakeholders need to begin to support women individually and collectively to claim and realise their right to land, using a range of approaches from legal support, including strategic litigation, to training and upskilling in agricultural techniques, especially in relation to climate change, to policy and advocacy.
In addition to fighting discriminatory patriarchal norms, policies and practices, women’s rights organisations and policymakers need to try to tackle issues of land governance, investment in land and climate change from a human rights perspective. There is a need to emphasise the importance of involving grassroots women and women’s groups in decision-making procedures to strengthen women’s right to use, control, access and make decisions about land.
At the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) our recent initiative of helping 5000 women to improve their land and property rights and contribute to gender equality, the achievement of the SDGs and sustainable and inclusive economic growth to benefit the whole of society. In line with NAPE’s assertion that support for “women human rights activists and movements” is vital to challenge gender-based discrimination and inequality, our focus on mobilising and strengthening the grassroots women’s movement in Uganda. NAPE is capacitating a grassroots women’s movement that will continue to mobilise and build the resilience of marginalised women sustainably.
There is also need to emphasise the linkages between Women’s Land Rights and national and international commitments by the government, not only with regards to the SDGs and the UN CFS's Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure (VGGTs), but especially with regards to the policy notes on Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation. It is essential that the government makes sure that businesses comply with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the VGGTs, including the implementation of FPIC. Grievance mechanisms should be in place to address unfair or nontransparent investments.
Equity must be at the heart of women’s rights to land if we are to improve the human rights of the most vulnerable and marginalised women affected by the acquisition of land and loss of livelihoods.
Writer is the Gender Officer at National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE).