Ugandan widows left landless, caught in web of statutory law and traditional practices

by Shifa Mwesigye
Thursday, 19 June 2014 21:42 GMT

In this 2007 file photo, Ugandan women collect beans from a garden in Abedijo Village REUTERS/Hudson Apunyo

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The men know it is unfair, but they believe they are entitled to the property - Ugandan land minister

KAMPALA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The past six years have been a nightmare for Harriet Nakibuule, a widow and mother of seven. When her husband died from HIV-related illnesses on Oct. 12, 2008, Harriet’s in-laws stormed her house, set her property on fire and sold chunks of her farm.

She lives in Ngombere Village in Mukono District, where the highest cases of property grabbing are recorded in Uganda.  About 55 percent of widows in Mukono have experienced family members seizing land according to International Justice Mission.

Her brother-in-law told Harriet to pack up whatever was left and leave the land because it now belonged to her husband’s relatives.  Harriet was not registered as legally married, a common practice in many rural areas, even though she had lived with her husband for 15 years.

She had no place to go. She was constantly sick, having contracted the HIV virus too, along with one of her seven children.

“My husband inherited this property from his father Kiwanuka, so my children were entitled to it. They (his family) chose my brother-in-law as the heir to my husband, saying that my children would all die. I vowed that I would not leave my house and I will fight to death for my children’s property,” Harriet said.

In Uganda, the family is a powerful force in denying widows and orphans land. Even though Ugandan law states that a woman has equal inheritance rights, and children must be protected, these rights are not widely known in remote areas and they frequently conflict with traditional and religious practices.  Under customary law, an heir is assigned by the head of the family or the clan and given the mandate to administer the estate, and sometimes the widow.    

So for Harriet Nakibuule a six-year battle ensured, as relatives started selling off her family’s plot of about six acres. One night, they knocked down her mud and wattle house.

“Why was he chasing me?  What was he going to do with my children? One of my children is also HIV positive and needs special care, how would I leave him behind? Where was I to go?” Harriet said.

Her local council leaders said this was a family matter. The police sent her back to sort it out as a family dispute. They had legal grounds to refuse help.  While Uganda’s Succession Act clearly entitles widows to 15 percent of the estate regardless of a will, and 75 percent for the biological children, those provisions only apply to women who are legally married.

But in Uganda, most marriages are customary or cohabitions. Even marriages in churches are not legally recognized.  Many women like Harriet don’t know that without registering their marriage, they have no property rights.

“Women have no idea about the laws, and this is because we live in a patriarchal society where men believe they are entitled,” said Daudi Migereko, Uganda’s Minister of Land, Housing and Urban Development in an interview.

“They say that a girl will get married and get from her husband. The men know it is unfair, but they believe they are entitled to the property. They say ‘Why should a girl take our family property into another man’s clan?’” 

Brian Ourien from International Justice Mission, which mediates land disputes, said the government has done little to educate the public on the different land laws and policies.  If women had information, they would fight for their rights and widows would not find themselves on the streets, he said.

Reform stumbles

While Ugandan law generally protects the equal rights of every citizen, there are no specific laws that guarantee women’s ownership of land. Uganda is currently ranked 116th out of 146 countries on the United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index.

Efforts at reforming the mosaic of customary practice and Ugandan law have stumbled. In 2009 legislators tabled the Marriage and Divorce Bill, which would have extended property rights to those who live together as husband and wife for at least seven years.  A co-ownership clause was dropped from the 2000 Land Act amendments after criticism that it would upset clan cohesion if widowed women were to marry outside the clan.

Jesse Rudy of the International Justice Mission (IJM) advises woman not legally married to protect their rights by getting their name on all property acquired with their husbands. “Formalizing properties rights in terms of land titles and sales agreements as well as a legal will or marriage certificate are very important in protecting succession rights,” said Rudy.

It was another law, the Children’s Act, that empowered Harriet. It protects the best interests of the child in property matters. With IJM’s help, Harriet managed to get her in-laws arrested and charged with threatening violence and destruction of property. On Sept. 19, 2013, Harriet’s family was given two acres of land, which now belong to her seven children. The rest already had been sold.

Harriet Nakibuule has gone on to help other women, and they are steadily heeding her advice.

“Women are now coming to me to teach them how they can secure their land. They now realize the mistake that I made, of not making their marriages formal and legal,” Harriet said.

((Shifa Mwesigye is based in Kampala and freelances for Thomson Reuters Foundation. This story was reported as part of a Foundation journalism training course on Land and Poverty, sponsored by the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and Thomson Reuters. Editing by Stella Dawson))

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