Credit: Gates Foundation.
APRIL 2011. More than 80 percent of land in Uganda is held under undocumented customary law. Some scholars and advocates warn that this is a hindrance to women’s land rights because of the commonly held view that customary tenure generally favors men. However, women in many places, including northern Uganda, have strong land rights enshrined in the customs and traditions of their tribes.
In the Acholi, Langi and Iteso tribes, customary rules recognize women’s rights to land. In these societies, everyone born of the clan has the right to use land, including women. Land is considered to be owned by families, and the family head is responsible for ensuring that all family members have access to land. Clan elders are charged with ensuring that family heads fulfill those duties. Women are entitled to access their husband’s land when they marry, and become the family head upon the death of the husband.
Unfortunately, the power of elders and family heads to enforce these customary rules is eroding. The legitimacy of customary leaders is being challenged, as many community members believe local leaders frequently make decisions that benefit them personally while harming the community. In addition, statutory tenure usually trumps customary tenure in practice, even though they are legally equal. It is therefore becoming harder for customary leaders to enforce traditional rules around land.
Ugandan statutory law recognizes customary ownership of land and women’s rights to land. These principles were included the 1995 Constitution and the 1998 Land Act. The Constitution also prohibits customs that are biased against women.
However, the existing laws do not effectively protect women’s land rights. For example, while the Land Act requires spousal consent for many land transactions, it does not include an enforcement mechanism. The Land Act also allows for the issuance of certificates of customary ownership, as a form of protection for customary rights, but requires that the certificate be issued in the name of the family head, typically a male, rather than the family as a whole. The Succession Act significantly limits widows’ rights, entitling them to just 15 percent of the deceased husband’s estate, and even that is precarious.
A new National Land Policy was approved by the Ugandan government in April 2013.
It recognizes the gap between women’s land rights in law and in practice and directs the government to pass legislation to “protect the right to inheritance and ownership of land for women and children,” and to ensure equal land rights for men and women in marriage. It calls for an overhaul of the Succession Act and revisions to the Land Act, and for the restoration of powers of land administration to traditional leaders, provided they are sensitive to the rights of vulnerable groups.