By Jennifer Bakyawa
Thursday, August 30, 2001
Ugandan women do the vast majority of the agricultural work, as they do throughout Africa, but they own only 8 percent of the land that they till and have virtually no property rights. Now they are demanding legal co-ownership with their husbands.
KAMPALA, Uganda (WOMENSENEWS)--Winfred Busingye, 41, is up by 6 to prepare breakfast for her family--four children and a snoring partner. She packs a lunch of the previous day's leftovers for herself and the children because they will spend many hours in the fields, returning at dusk.
This is a daily ritual in Kitunga subcounty in southwestern Uganda.
In contrast, Busingye's male partner is still sleeping or nursing a hangover. As the day warms, he may go out drinking again or lounge in one-room shacks that serve as bars, waiting for friends to buy him a free drink of banana beer.
Sometimes, he joins her in the fields to plant and tend bananas that he either sells or brews.
Every year, Busingye must sell some of the family's food to pay taxes for her husband, or else he is locked up. In case she does not, he will sell a piece of the family land.
Busingye is one of an estimated 12 million Ugandan women, most of them engaged in agriculture, who have virtually no property rights because customary law gives property to their husbands.
Throughout Africa, men own the land and the women work it--seldom with their own rights to it. This system may be beginning to crumble, however, at least in Uganda.
Earlier this month, the Uganda Women's Network, which includes more than 40 organizations, met here in the capital to develop a strategy to push legislation that would allow women to jointly own land on which the family home is situated or where the family derives sustenance, usually subsistence.
"Women provide over 80 percent of the farm labor force, yet don't have a stake in the land since it is owned solely by men," says Sheila Kawamara, the coordinator of the network.
This is an apparent reaction to several attempts to persuade the governing political party to support a change in the nation's land laws.
Women activists tried to mobilize rural women against the Movement, the governing political party, before the referendum polls that were held last June.
They demonstrated in Rukungiri district in western Uganda on International Women's Day, March 8. They put on black T-shirts and marched demanding a co-ownership clause to the Land Act, as well as enactment of the bills against domestic violence and sexual offenses. They also demanded establishment of an Equal Opportunities Commission.
But this came to naught when the Movement of President Yoweri Museveni won the referendum.
The women now have decided on political lobbying.
Their focus is on gaining support for a change to the nation's land laws proposed since 1998 by Miria Matembe, then a member of Uganda's parliament and now Minister of Ethics and Integrity. If enacted, the law would require a registered landowner to obtain the consent of all family members before selling the land on which he or she ordinarily resides with the spouse or children, or from which they derive sustenance. Family members include spouses and children of majority age or a parish land committee in cases of children below the age of majority.
Those for the proposal argue that it will protect families, particularly those headed by women, against unscrupulous landowners who take away a widowed or divorced woman's property and home.
Like Mzee Namisango, 65, who was evicted from the land where she and her husband had lived for 40 years in Mukono district, central Uganda. Her husband, Ssesanga, had gone into debt and sold off their land. Namisango knew nothing of the sale until the buyer showed up in 1997 and bundled her and her eight grandchildren off. Her husband had fled and was in hiding for weeks. She was paid only the equivalent of $58 (about 100,000 Uganda shillings) in compensation.
Namisango suffered a stroke that left her partially deaf and unable to speak. She took the case to the village court. Officials could not help but charged the equivalent of $11 for their time. After paying a truck driver the equivalent of $22 to move her few household goods, she was left virtually penniless.
After almost two years, Baguma Isoke, the minister of state for lands, finally consulted Matembe and other women activists on the clause. The ministry had broadened the now-controversial clause to include polygamous marriages so that wives living jointly on a piece of land with their husbands would all co-own it. In the case of wives living independently, each would co-own the land with the husband.
However, the controversial women's rights legislation now has been deferred to the Domestic Relations Bill which has been on the shelf since 1964.
"Cabinet's decision to refer the clause on co-ownership to the Domestic Relations Bill bespeaks of a hidden and sinister intention to surely deny the women their due as demanded for under the Land Act. For the last 35 years, successive governments have tried to carry out reform on family law, which has never been completed," says Jaqueline Asiimwe, chair of the Uganda Land Alliance.
However, by attempting to put off the battle, the parliament may have aroused more intense pressure for the land proposal.
"If government remains adamant on this clause, we have the numerical support," said Abu Dominica, former chair of the Uganda Women Parliamentary Association. "I think we aren't asking too much."
Jennifer Bakyawa is a journalist in Kampala, Uganda.
Oxfam Land Rights Resource Bank:
"Uganda: Exclusion of Women From Land Ownership--The 'Lost Clause,'" Equality Now: