Gender and economic inequalities are still very pervasive within countries across the world. Despite the considerable progress made on promoting women’s economic empowerment and reducing gender inequalities through strategies, programs, and interventions, many countries are still struggling to provide and ensure equal social, economic, and political participation and inclusion of women.
Uganda is one of the countries where gender inequalities are a crucial barrier to economic growth. For most Ugandans, the land is a sensitive issue but also a valuable resource of wealth and a significant part of their identity. According to an article published in 2018 by The World Bank, 70 percent of the population in Uganda is employed in agriculture, making agriculture the main and most important resource for livelihood for Ugandans. Even though the natural resources and agriculture is substantial, women in this country face numerous cultural and legal barriers that affect their rights and prevent them from fully enjoying their property and land ownership rights. To understand Ugandan women’s role in society and their reality better, I have talked to Sarah Kusiima, a lawyer and a women’s rights advocate living and working in Uganda. Sarah has obtained her master’s degree in Land Management from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, and has vast experience in land-related matters. Her Master’s thesis was on “Computerisation of Land Registry: Challenges and Implications for the Mailo Tenure Security and Rights”. Currently, in Uganda, there are four land tenure systems with the Mailo land tenure system being the most complex one. In the country, the land market is growing at a high rate, especially in the Central region of Uganda where the Mailo tenure system is mainly present, and land registration is impeded by many barriers.
According to Sarah’s research, there is a low efficiency regarding the Mailo land registration because of using an out-of-date system that prevents many people to register, follow up or process their land titles. The citizens are not educated on how to register their land and Uganda’s Ministry of Land, Housing and Urban Development lacks adequate policy and procedures on land information and registration. Throughout her master’s thesis, Sarah has sought to assess the land rights status in Mailo land areas and how the analog and computerized systems of storing land records at the central registry would improve information storage and land rights accessibility. In her thesis, she aimed at answering two research questions: “Will reforming the central land registry system of land record keeping improve the land tenure status of Ugandans?” and “What factors inherent in the land registry constrain land rights transfer for Mailo land tenants?”. According to Sarah, the security of tenure is critical for settlement and economic reasons as the Mailo tenure system covers the most densely populated and highly developed region of the country. Her research findings indicated that the tracing of the documents in the land registers requires considerable time and effort which has resulted in duplication of information within registers or mixing up of land registration documents due to the manual handling of the cases. Other findings indicated that despite being very vital, the daily case handling processes within the land registers lacked documented procedures and controls for improving the effectiveness within the process. Sarah has concluded that land registers in Uganda have been overused, old, and in a poor state which posed a risk for the land information in the registers to be lost if the Ministry failed to secure the registers and strengthen the methods of information capture and storage.
Sarah’s Master’s thesis deals with an important issue that indicates Uganda’s institutional constraints and is correlated to the issue discussed in this article. Aside from land tenure and property law, Sarah’s area of expertise includes human rights, especially women’s rights to land, economic empowerment, food security, and poverty reduction. She has worked on legislation to advocate for equitable land rights in rural settings and has worked with the African Union’s Peace and Security Council on a project focusing on transitional justice and post-conflict land tenure relations regarding women and children’s rights to land. “Uganda as a country has made significant strides in the advancement of women’s rights. To reduce gender-based discrimination, the government has stepped up in their attempts to incorporate and integrate gender into policymaking,” says Sarah. Despite the efforts and slow progress, the unequal distribution of land and structural inequalities still prevail and pose a barrier to social, economic, and political development and a threat to the advancement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Uganda.
The issues at stake
Equal property rights have been a long-running issue, limiting women’s economic opportunities, security, and productive potential. The Ugandan women make up the majority of the agricultural labor force, meaning their contribution to the economic development of the country is essential and yet, women’s role as crucial contributors is greatly disregarded. The Uganda Bureau of Statistics’ (UBOS) statistical abstract [PDF] published in 2020 indicates that while the majority of the working population from 2009 to 2017 engaged in the agricultural industry were females, women were also paid less than men with notable differences between their monthly earnings. Moreover, the Uganda Economic Update report published by the World Bank Group in 2021 states that even though women constitute 75 percent of the country’s population, in the Lango sub-region in Uganda, 70 percent of the land is owned by men while only 5 percent is owned by women. As the inequalities, vulnerability, and inequity have increased due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this report emphasizes the importance of women’s access, control, and ownership of land, as well as empowerment and inclusion of women in economic activities and decision-making processes.
According to the statistical abstract by UBOS and the report published by the World Bank Group, it is apparent that the trend of women’s economic disempowerment in Uganda is persistent. This issue is also acknowledged and thoroughly addressed by the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) as their main objective in the Denmark-Uganda Partnership 2018-2022 Country Programme Document. Through financial support DANIDA has been a major contributor to Uganda’s development, aligning their program’s objectives with the SDGs and the Uganda Vision 2040. Due to Uganda’s economic decline, it is essential for the issues of economic inclusion and empowerment to be addressed and requires a multifaceted approach. As Uganda’s key partner, DANIDA has been supporting the agricultural development of the country, with particular attention to economic empowerment and inclusion of the marginalized group of women and youth. DANIDA’s Uganda Programme for Sustainable and Inclusive Development of the Economy (UPSIDE) prioritizes women and youth as its key target group with the goal to support and increase their social and economic empowerment.
Ugandan legislation proclaims gender equality and equal opportunities and rights for men and women but, there is a gap between policies and practice, and the complex land issue is not completely regulated by law. Despite the progressive legal framework and the fact that the Constitution of Uganda, Uganda’s Land Act, and the National Land Policy all recognize and guarantee women’s land ownership rights and equal payment, other discriminatory laws such as the Succession Act and the Divorce Act negatively affect women’s empowerment and contribute to further widening the gap in land ownership. The current Uganda’s Succession Act – a law regulating the property of a deceased person through a will – discriminates and denies widows from inheriting land as the land is passed to the closest male relative to the deceased person. This law prevents women from exercising their rights and deepens the already existing gender inequalities, therefore making women a particularly vulnerable group. Traditionally, in Uganda, men are considered to have the right to land and resource ownership, while women are expected to be economically dependent and are excluded from having control or ownership of land. “You cannot resolve historical injustice and deeply-rooted discriminatory systems simply by legislative reforms to provide for a gender-neutral law. You need deliberate economic and social reforms which will target the empowerment and transformation of the disadvantaged groups,” explains Sarah.
Culture as a barrier to economic equality
Another barrier towards the economic empowerment of women is the persistent cultural practices and deeply entrenched gender biases that prevent women from equally participating in society and having equal control and ownership of land as men. The laws which fail to protect women from discrimination combined with harmful practices and norms negatively affect women’s livelihoods and reinforce their oppression in the Ugandan society. According to Sarah, different roles are given to people in Uganda from a very young age. The young boys have the role of authority, while the girls have a subordinate role and are responsible mainly for the domestic work. “The issue of patriarchy is quite an intricate aspect of our day-to-day life events,” Sarah states.
The inability of women to own land creates a series of issues in Uganda’s patriarchal society. The patriarchal practices affect the economic growth and development of the country, negatively impact the health, education, food security, and overall well-being of women and their children as well.
“There are serious significant obstacles to access education for women and girls in Uganda. The boys are favored to continue with their education over girls and girls have higher drop-out rates, in part due to early marriage and pregnancy,” explains Sarah. Being less educated than men, women are often not aware of their rights and are not informed of how to take legal action to protect their rights. “Cultural and religious norms tend to dictate access and use of their rights even for educated women,” she continues. As a result of these cultural practices, women are not seen worthy of owning land and their socio-economic responsibilities and contribution are often underappreciated, limiting women to provide for themselves and their children. “Women continue to face severe legal and cultural obstacles to ownership of property, including land and inheritance,” says Sarah.
New legislation: A light at the end of the tunnel?
With the effort to fight against discrimination and promote gender equality concerning land ownership, in March 2021, the Ugandan Parliament passed two Bills. The new Succession Amendment Bill and the Employment Amendment Bill were passed in order for the country to ensure equality of women regarding land ownership and to legally protect women from sexual violence and harassment in the workplace. The Succession Amendment Bill provides the right for widows to be able to inherit the land after the death of the spouse and ensures equality of the distribution of property between men and women.
The removal of the legal constraints regarding women’s land rights is a big step towards safeguarding and enhancing the rights of vulnerable groups. However, the Succession Bill is not a law yet and according to Sarah, it cannot be speculated whether or not this will help the widows and regulate their land ownership rights. Even though Uganda does not have any laws that explicitly prohibit women to access or own land, the state’s institutional structures struggle with the implementation and enforcement of its pro-gender policies and regulations. The efforts made by the government to improve women’s land rights and their role in society could go overlooked if they fail to address the issue by applying an integral and multi-sectoral approach in order to tackle the prevailing gender inequalities and social biases.
“A change of mindset is critical in order to achieve the set targets and we still have a long way to go,” states Sarah.
The future of Ugandan women depends on the measures taken by the government to close the policy-practice gap and implement effective national policies, but also on the women’s attitude towards gender equality because according to Sarah, “Some of the women are still so much ingrained into cultural and religious beliefs that any legislation outside of those beliefs is considered as unacceptable and therefore, a no-go zone”. Moreover, effective implementation of the policies to ensure closing of the gender and pay gap in the country is needed to accelerate the progress towards the 2030 Agenda and improve the socio-economic development of the country.
In Uganda, the number of problems concerning land ownership and rights is significant and land injustice is persistent. From traditional gender roles, patriarchal practices, economic and opportunity inequalities to legal limitations, inefficiency of the land registry, and lack of accountability of the land sector, the obstacles blocking women’s advancement are far too many. Despite the international support and development cooperation, the issue of land ownership and economic empowerment of women in Uganda needs a much deeper national approach, effective strategies, and reforms. The intertwined systemic issues create numerous barriers for women and the harmful social practices prevent them from thriving and unlocking their full potential. What the future holds for the women of Uganda, and whether the long-awaited new legislation will bring transformative changes to successfully lift women out of poverty and strengthen their role in society, remains to be seen.
Dragica Dimova is a MSC student in Development and International Relations at Aalborg University
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