KAMPALA, Uganda (WOMENSENEWS)–"It was 1995 when my husband chased me away from my house," remembers Roseline Ahimbisibwe, a 45-year-old widow and mother of four. "I think it was stress; he had debts."
She believes that money problems drove her husband to turn abusive, have affairs, mortgage their house and sell their plot, before he died mysteriously in 1998, possibly with HIV. Unlike many, Ahimbisibwe, a primary school teacher, was able to find a new place to live when the bank took her home. These days, she boasts of small successes, like her son’s plans to enroll in university next year. Yet, she remains stalled in her own plans to open a daycare center and nursery on the land that legally should belong to her.
Though there are no laws against women owning land in Uganda, the custom of male inheritance in a rural and poor society has resulted in 93 percent of women being locked out of ownership. To counter this trend and curb the widespread dispossession of widows and wives, activists for years have tried to amend Uganda’s property laws so that spouses are deemed co-owners of "family land," that land on which the couple lives and depends. Despite Uganda’s progressive 1995 Constitution, which values gender equity and reserves a significant number of seats in Parliament for women, despite numerous studies linking women’s property rights to economic development, despite extensive coverage of the movement for women’s land rights in Uganda, both in academia and in the press, and despite five years of activism, advocates for women’s land rights have achieved few legislative successes.
Women, who supply 80 percent of agricultural labor in Uganda, are simply not expected to own land. When activists tried to have wives deemed co-owners of family land in 1998, opponents of the measure blocked such a clause from being incorporated into Section 40 of the Land Act, which required a spouse’s written consent to sell land that provides the family both shelter and sustenance. Implementation of even this modest protection has been poor: one-third of adults are illiterate and a husband’s verbal claim to the buyer that his wife agrees is often sufficient. If more proof is required, there are no safeguards to prevent a husband from supplying forged documents, or even hiring an impersonator.
Last month, Parliament passed an amendment to Section 40 of the 1998 Land Act that achieves a measured victory by broadening the definition of spousal land and preventing a spouse’s objection to its sale from lapsing. However, activists’ original intentions to assert a wife’s co-ownership rights are still on hold.
Tradition of Male Inheritance Leaves Women Landless
While the new bill represents progress, the law will not uproot the cultural traditions that are the biggest obstacle to women gaining land ownership rights. Ahimbisibwe, a joint owner with her name on the title, shouldn’t have needed special protection. Yet, like so many women, her husband’s word was accepted as proof of her consent and she learned about the sale of her land too late. Now she is responsible for returning to the buyer the profits her husband spent, and after five years in court, has still been unable to recover what was never legally sold.
"Here in Uganda, always boys inherit the land," explains Ahimbisibwe, in an interview with Women’s eNews. Despite her experiences, even she would will her property to her second oldest son, a dependable and high-achieving high school student. When asked whether she agrees with the tradition that would leave her two daughters dependent on finding husbands with property, she laughs, and hopes to put off deciding until they are grown.
In patriarchal societies like Uganda, the idea that wives are property hasn’t entirely died out. Many husbands still pay a bride price; Ahimbisibwe’s was three cows. When a man dies, his land typically goes to his male children or to his male kin, reverting back to his clan. Though illegal, property-grabbing, when a man’s relatives descend upon his widow to claim the household’s material possessions, is common.
"This behavior creates street children, creates women sex-workers because they have nowhere to resort to. I wish government could see this," says Loice Bwambale, a member of parliament sitting on the Select Committee that designed the amendment to Section 40.
Part of the weakness in the current law is that power dynamics within the home often make it difficult for women to assert their ownership rights.
"Sometimes you rise to your own peril. He might beat you or chase you out of the home, so it’s not something women would jump to do," says Jacqueline Asiimwe-Mwesige, a lawyer and coordinator for the Uganda Women’s Network, a Kampala-based organization that promotes women’s use of information and communication technologies.
Amendment Survives Through Compromise
In a perennial attempt to remedy women’s relative powerlessness over decisions about land, women’s rights activists began reviving spousal co-ownership of family land in October 2002. They hoped to smuggle in this so-called "lost clause," which had been left out of the 1998 Land Act, as part of the Land Amendment Bill then under review.
Advised once again that co-ownership lacked support, advocates backed by the Uganda Land Alliance and Uganda Women’s Network changed tack, and decided to approach the problem under the aegis of asserting the entire family’s interest in that land on which they depend. Covering only property narrowly defined as family land, the new draft clause required spouses and dependent children to be listed on the title, making it obvious to buyers that consent was required.
As the 15 person Select Committee debated the draft through April and May of this year, supporters and opponents circled their wagons. At a May 6 parliamentary breakfast, Norbert Mao, a member of parliament and widely regard as a presidential hopeful in 2006, gained attention by highlighting his support for the clause: "In these days of HIV/AIDS and widows and orphans, this law is more important than ever. It does not go far enough!"
At the same time, banks balked, charging that the amendment would obstruct transactions and hurt the economy. President Yoweri Museveni, who has supported Western style economic reforms including privatization, was known to view it as a threat to private property.
In its report to Parliament on May 16, the committee lacked consensus, with some members wanting to drop the clause altogether. Yet, in a small victory, consideration of the bill was stayed, and the committee was asked to go back to work.
In a further compromise, the controversial listing of family members was removed. The most recent draft, passed June 18, whittles the changes down to two small improvements: a wider definition of family land that now includes either land where a family resides or obtains its sustenance and the prevention of a spouse’s registered objection to sale from lapsing after 60 days, as it had previously if not pursued in court.
While the bill currently awaits signing by President Museveni, who has expressed reservations about the rates of ground rent it allows, any future changes are unlikely to affect the family land rights amendment.
Presidential Politics May Provide an Unexpected Boost
"The proposed amendment is much more watered down, but I see it’s better than nothing," responded Annet Ttendo in mid-May. As head of the Uganda Association of Women Lawyer’s Advocacy Department, and as a daughter whose father left land only to her brothers, Ttendo has been frustrated by the slow progress of women’s land rights. In 2002, property disputes accounted for almost 30 percent of the association’s cases. Forty-eight percent involved women fighting to have fathers pay child support.
Like many, Ttendo blames co-ownership’s defeat on Museveni’s courting of foreign investors who prefer speedy property transactions unhampered by ownership disputes. "Here in Uganda, if the president has not agreed to something, it can not be passed into law."
However, with the 2006 elections approaching, a strong public push for a multi-party system, and a two-term limit that has to be removed by parliamentary vote if Museveni is to run, the president can not afford to completely alienate women’s rights supporters. Although not all female members of parliament support co-ownership, many do and women currently make up 24.7 percent of the body. In addition, current speculation is that the recent removal and resignation of two powerful women from key posts, Minister of State for Ethics and Integrity Miria Matembe (the original sponsor of the "lost clause") and Vice President Dr. Speciosa Wandira Kazibwe, means Museveni will have to make concessions to women, such as considering a Domestic Relations Bill tabled since 1964.
"The president is not to march us into a third term without commitments," contends member of parliament Loice Bwambale. How far activists will be able to leverage the uncertain political situation to their advantage is unclear.
Meanwhile, a few women who can afford it seek remedy for lost land by going to court. In largely rural Uganda, where 55 percent live below the national poverty line and 28 percent of the population is undernourished, a small plot often provides vital sustenance. But fighting a legal battle to keep it is usually impossible. To pay for her lawyer, Ahimbisibwe says, "I am squeezing. I pay him little by little."
Taking a carefully folded sheet from her purse, she displays the plans she has drawn with the help of her son for Plot 3A Stanley Road. Her idea is to start a daycare and nursery and to build a house on the same plot. Though her case drags on frustratingly, she persists: "I’m eager to start my project."
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Nicole Leistikow, a freelance writer and news editor for Inthefray.com, is currently based in New Delhi.