ADELE BUTLER – Women of Spirit: Know Your Rights!

 

 

 

KNOW YOUR RIGHTS !

 

Years ago I was asked by Equality Now to write a letter to His Excellency Yoweri Museveni, the President of Uganda regarding the Land Act. It seems that even though a woman’s right to property is protected under the Ugandan law, in rural areas this is abused , ignored or overlooked. The letter was written to urge His Excellency to publicly support and ensure the swift passage of the co-ownership amendment to the Land Act which would prevent women like Mariam Kabeere who was forced out of her home and land after 38 years. This was a violation of Mariam’s rights and other women’s rights which the co-ownership amendment would effectively resolve.

Under Ugandan Constitution, Article 33 states that “women shall have the right to equal treatment with men, and that right shall include equal opportunity in political, economic, and social activities.” This is clearly not the case, as only 7% out of over 80% of all women own land. Women are only allowed to cultivate land, not own it and in Mariam’s case, she barred from the property and was forced to farm plots lent to her by friends in order to support herself. She is faced with possible eviction because her husband wants the family home in addition to the land.

Women like Mariam are forced to depend on a husband or a male relative in order to have access to land and have no security—nothing to support them when they are abandoned, widowed or chased away from home. 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 children homeless and vulnerable.

Uganda is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and is obligated under Article 23, to take appropriate actions to ensure the equality of rights and responsibilities of spouses as to marriage. The government is obligated to ensure that women are granted the right to co-own property so that when they are divorced or widowed, they are able to support themselves and their children.

Uganda 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. Women do most of the farm work and yet, they are not allowed to own land. The inequalities and disadvantages that these women face need to be addressed. Co-ownership would enable them the security of owning and controlling the land without having to depend on husbands or male relatives and protect them from being evicted when they are divorced or widowed (http://www.equalitynow.org/english/actions/action_1701_en.html).

I don’t know what became of Mariam but I hope and pray that the government stepped in because of its obligation to ensure that women like her are granted the right to co-own property so that when they are divorced or widowed, they are able to support themselves and their children.

Recently, I read about a woman who faced a similar situation. Struggling to raise six children Olivia Nakazi had to find a way to keep her land. To make matters worse, she had no written will or proof of whom the land belonged to. Her in-laws wanted possession of the land even while her husband was still alive.

It is crucial for a woman like Olivia to have land. According to economist Krista Jacobs, an International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) expert on women’s property rights, “For women in developing countries, owning property can be an avenue out of poverty. When they own a plot of land, they can grow food on it. What they reap helps feed their families – improving their nutrition and health – and provides products to sell. Or, when women own assets such as livestock, they have a regular source of milk, eggs and meat that also can be sold at a market and used at home. Women who have and control property are more economically secure, have a place to live, can more easily start or grow a business and can better care for their families,” Jacobs says.

“Women with land and property have more resources to move themselves, their families and their communities out of poverty.”

Olivia was determined not to be kicked off her property so she enlisted the help of Richard Ssali, her community leader and a paralegal who succeeded in getting her and her in-laws to settle out of court. The family agreed to provide 1½ acres of the four-acre plot for Olivia to live on but to avoid future problems, Ssali referred her to a local non-governmental agency which deals with land rights. They got Olivia’s in-laws to sign an agreement stating that they will not kick her off the property.

Despite her struggle to retain the land she had lived on for years, Olivia says she never thought of leaving – an option many women in similar circumstances feel they must take. Many choose to return to their native villages with no land, no home and no support from in-laws after the death of a husband (http://www.icrw.org/media/news/fighting-her-land). Olivia stayed and fought for six very good reasons—her children. She was determined not to let anyone evict them from their home. It’s hard to believe that Olivia’s in-laws would even consider evicting her and the children, the youngest of which is two and subjecting them to a life of struggle and poverty. If it hadn’t been for her tenacity and the resources she was able to obtain, Olivia and her children would have ended up in the streets.

I applaud the organizations like Landesa, Equality Now, to name a couple, which are dedicated to helping women to hold on to their properties. Women find freedom through land ownership and it is their ticket out of poverty. Women need to learn about their property rights. Armed with this knowledge, Hafswa Nabanjja and her husband, with the assistance of paralegal, Zziwa, arranged to meet the landowner. Despite his reluctance at first to listen to Hafswa’s demands, she and Zziwa ultimately convinced him that he was legally obligated to compensate her for the land she was losing – land that had grown more valuable in Uganda in recent years as property values skyrocketed.

Faced with the law, and a tenant unwilling to be cowed, the landowner agreed to the compensation. Hafswa plans to put her newfound knowledge of land rights to use. She spends each day weaving small mats and baskets to sell. She uses income from those sales to invest in a small village bank in the hopes of one day buying more land. Like Olivia, she was a determined woman. She and her husband “were willing to go to every organization for help,” she says. “We knew we had rights, and we were not willing to lose out” (http://www.icrw.org/media/news/knowing-her-rights).

~ Adele Butler @ A Celebration of Women, 2011.

 

The first step in a woman’s fight to hold on to her property is to ‘know her rights’.

 

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