Protecting Widows’ Land Rights in Uganda: A Promised Land Still Far

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“Jonathan, please attend”

This is a note I found on my desk attached to a letter from the International Justice Mission (IJM) inviting us to the launch of a report titled “Property Grabbing from Ugandan Widows and the Justice System Response” in one of the Kampala hotels.

I was elated for two reasons. Firstly, as a 4th year law student, I was the Team Leader for the Campus “Chapter” of IJM which was supporting the Clinical Legal Education class at Uganda Christian University. We used to help people draft wills, conduct outreach programmes in schools and communities in Mukono, Gulu, Entebbe, Wakiso, among others discussing inheritance, land rights, human rights etc. We also drafted memos on key legal issues in the country for consideration by IJM in their programming. So I had a personal connection to this Organization.

Secondly, because of the exposure from IJM, I developed a keen interest in legal aid service provision and my professional journey eventually took that path. I did my Bar Course clerkship at LDC Legal Aid Clinic where I did similar work handling commonly land-related disputes for indigent persons. I later got my first formal job as a Land Rights Desk Officer and later, Legal Officer with the Uganda Land Alliance where I engaged in a lot of land rights advocacy by supporting indigent and vulnerable persons through mediation, legal counselling and litigation. So being invited to this event was refreshing since it was in an area I have professional interest in.

When the report findings were presented, a very loud silence hovered all over the room because they were disturbing. Here are the major ones;

  1. Property Grabbing is COMMON: 1 out of 3 widows were victims of property grabbing
  2. Property Grabbing is VIOLENT: Over 50% of property grabbing police files reviewed included physical violence
  3. Property Grabbing is COMMITTED WITH IMPUNITY:  NO property grabbing perpetrators were convicted of a property grabbing crime

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Cover page of the report

The report further highlighted the harsh consequences that widows experience in just 12 after experiencing property grabbing, and they include;

  • Malnutrition: Nearly 2 out of 3 widows regularly missed meals
  • Poverty: 74.8% experienced a decrease in income
  • Health Risks: Nearly 2 out of 3 experienced a decline in health or negative change in their body
  • Dependency: 43.6% experienced a reliance on other people for food
  • Displacement: 32.3% of victims had to rely on other people for food
  • Death: 22.4% had a dependent pass away.

A Uganda National Household Survey Findings 2009/2010 by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics estimated the population of widows in Uganda at 873,992 which is 11% of the total female population in the country. 80.1% of these widows are household heads and 79.4% are engaged in subsistence farming. Although there are debates about this, estimates show that women are responsible for 60-80% of the agricultural labour supplied in Africa.

The above statistics alone clearly highlight the fact there is a very close connection between the welfare of women (widows inclusive) and land. Secure land ownership determines their livelihood. The words of Henry George in his 1881 publication “The Land Question: What It Involves, and How Alone It Can Be Settled” ably explain this point when he stated thus;

Land is necessary to all production, no matter what be the kind or form; land is the standing-place, the workshop, the storehouse of labor; it is to the human being the only means by which he can obtain access to the material universe or utilize its powers. Without land man cannot exist. To whom the ownership of land is given, to him is given the virtual ownership of the men who must live upon it.

So listening through the presentations at the launch was a reminder that as a country, beyond the legal and policy guarantees that safeguard women’s (including widows’) land rights, we need to do a lot to actualize our good laws for the welfare of our citizens who have lost their dear husbands.

A number of recommendations are made in the report including intensifying Public Education since the findings indicate a high level of ignorance of Uganda’s laws; Improving Service Provision in the areas of will writing, land documentation and formalization of marriages which minimize widow’s vulnerability; and Improvement in the Public Justice System which has the legal mandate to investigate and prosecute property grabbing crimes and provide efficient estate administration.

Lastly, for the believers, there is a divine call in James 1:27 which states and I quote;

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

(New International Version)

Property grabbing surely is not one way of looking after widows as envisaged in this Scripture!

Related Links

  1. The Report: https://www.ijm.org/studies/ug
  2. http://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/Widows-major-victims-land-grabbing-report/-/688334/2670828/-/j84d1uz/-/index.html

The author is a Kampala-based private Legal Practitioner and an Access to Justice Activist.