Uganda: Exclusion of Women from Land Ownership—The "Lost Clause"

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Date: 
1 Aug 2000

Women demonstratingFor over 38 years Mariam Namayanja Kabeere lived with her husband in a small house in Kakoba, Uganda. As farmers, they worked a small plot of land, called a kibanja, for their livelihood and raised six children. When Mariam's husband married another woman (polygamy is legal in Uganda under Islamic law or if the couple is married under customary law), he built his new wife a house on the kibanja and barred Mariam from the property. Unable to farm her land, Mariam was forced to farm plots lent to her by friends to support herself. Mariam's husband now demands the family home in addition to the land. Mariam refused to leave, and consequently he divorced her under Muslim law and claimed entitlement to the house as well as the kibanja. Mariam is now threatened by possible eviction from her home.

A combination of statutory and customary laws favoring male ownership of property disadvantage women's right to own land in Uganda, where women make up over 80% of the agricultural labor force and yet only 7% of all women own land. Under customary law, women's right to land is usually "access-based," meaning women can cultivate land, but do not own it, and access is usually given through a male relative. Historically excluded from basic decision-making powers, women have little control over income and little control in deciding what crops to plant and how best to allocate resources. Women like Mariam are placed in the precarious position of depending on a husband or male relative in order to maintain access to the land and have no security of tenure when abandoned, widowed, or chased away from the home. Ugandan inheritance law provides for a widow to receive 15% of her deceased husband's estate, although this small percentage is often withheld in practice. Under customary law a widow may be "inherited" by her in-laws and forced to marry a male relative, or displaced from her home, leaving her and her dependent children homeless and vulnerable.

In 1998, the Uganda Land Act was passed into law by Parliament. The Forum for Women in Democracy (FOWODE) and other groups which form the Uganda Land Alliance, a broad coalition advocating for land rights for the poor, lobbied intensively for the Land Act to include provisions which would strengthen women's land ownership rights. According to FOWODE, the President of Uganda made a commitment to land rights for women in general but expressed reservations about spousal co-ownership. Subsequently, as a result of the concerted efforts by the Uganda Land Alliance and other interested groups, an amendment providing for spousal co-ownership of land was introduced and passed in Parliament. However, the amendment was left out of the final act due to technical revisions, becoming known as the "lost clause."

The Uganda Land Alliance is spearheading a lobbying effort in support of "the lost clause." On March 8, 2000, International Women's Day, hundreds of Ugandan women wearing black (pictured above) marched to protest denial of their land ownership rights and demand reinstatement of the "lost clause." The amendment provides "where land acquired by a spouse individually or by spouses jointly is used as the principal place of residence or becomes the principal source of income or sustenance of the family…such land is and shall accordingly be treated for every purpose thereafter as land owned in common by the spouses." Passage of this amendment would offer women a registrable interest in land providing them with increased security, alleviation of economic dependence, improved access to credit, and protection of inheritance rights.

The Constitution of Uganda, adopted in 1995, provides in Article 33 that "women shall have the right to equal treatment with men, and that right shall include equal opportunity in political, economic, and social activities." Uganda is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and is obligated under Article 23 to "take appropriate steps to ensure equality of rights and responsibilities of spouses as to marriage." It is also a signatory to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights which mandates in Article 18, Section 3 that "The State shall ensure the elimination of every discrimination against women and also ensure the protection of the rights of the woman...as stipulated under international declarations and conventions." The co-ownership amendment would give effect to these obligations under national and international law.

Addressing inequalities and disadvantages women face in land ownership is essential to the realization of the fundamental human right to equality. As the Honorable Winnie Byanyima, Member of Parliament from Uganda and founder of FOWODE, has said: "When women own and control land, there will be more food in each household and more crops for export since most farm work is done by them. They will also be protected from eviction when they are widowed or divorced. The current system discriminates against women, which violates the equality provisions of our constitution. The co-ownership clause is important for growing our peasant agriculture-based economy and for strengthening poor women's and children's human rights."

What You Can Do: 

Please write to the President and the following officials. Call on them to publicly support and ensure swift passage of the co-ownership amendment to the Land Act. Cite the Ugandan Constitution, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the African Charter, all of which mandate the Ugandan government to eliminate discrimination against women and to promote women's rights. Note the gross gender disparity in land ownership in contrast with the disproportionate contribution of women to the agricultural sector, and the need for women's increased security of land tenure. Cite the case of Mariam Kabeere, a women who was forced off her land and is now being forced out of her home after 38 years. This is a violation of Mariam's human rights, which the co-ownership amendment would remedy.

His Excellency Yoweri Museveni
President of Uganda
Parliamentary Building
P.O. Box 7168
Kampala, Uganda
Tel: +256-41-254881-8
Fax: +256-41-235459/244012

Hon. Edward Sekandi
Speaker of the Parliament
Parliament Avenue
P.O. Box 7178
Kampala, Uganda
Tel: 256-41-341038/346806
Fax: 256-41-231296/347826
Email: speaker@parliament.go.ug

Hon. Ruhakana Rugunda
Minister for Water, Land, and Environment
P.O. Box 7122
Kampala, Uganda
Tel: +256-41-342931-3 or 358191
Fax: +256-41-230891
Email: rugunda@parliament.go.ug

Hon. Hilary Onek
Chair, Parliamentary Committee
on Water, Land & Environment
P.O. Box 7178
Kampala, Uganda
Tel: +256-41-251601
Fax: +256-41-346826
Email: honek@parliament.go.ug