Before 2012, becoming a widow in Ongako sub county in Gulu district in northern Uganda translated to loss of land and matrimonial home. It was common for widows to be summarily evicted from their marital homes by their husband’s families, leaving them and their children destitute.
However, the work of the USAID SAFE program and its partners in northern Uganda is changing this situation by educating traditional elders and cultural leaders on women’s legal and constitutional rights.
“Before (the SAFE supported training) cultural leaders were not conscious of women’s land rights. Widows had no protection whatsoever. But after the training the leaders started looking at widows as part of the family and as people whose rights are protected under the Constitution”, – Pamela Kamlega, a legal officer with FIDA, USAID SAFE grantee.
“That’s why cultural leaders are now at the fore front in terms of protection of women’s land rights.”
The story of Rose Odongo illustrates the impact of this work. Rose and her two co-wives were widowed when their husband was killed during the LRA war in an attack on their village. The husband’s death brought the widows to the edge of disaster, when the husband’s family members sought to evict them and their children from land they had occupied when married, their only source of livelihood.
Rose approached local clan leaders hoping to get support against the eviction attempt, but failed. The clan leaders sided with the in-laws who were bribing them with alcohol. Fortunately, Rose learned through acquaintances about the work of SAFE grantee FIDA (the Uganda Association of Women Lawyers). Supported by SAFE, FIDA has been running sensitization sessions for cultural leaders to teach them about widows’ legal rights to remain on family land allocations even after their husbands’ deaths. Rose approached FIDA and a mediation was conducted in July 2016 between the in-laws and the widows in which all agreed to demarcate the land. A memorandum of understanding was signed, boundaries were marked with trees and Rose is in the final stages of registering her land for a title.
Because of the sensitization programs that have been held by FIDA in 2015 and 2016, it is now more common for cultural leaders to support widows against land grabbing attempts by family members and to assist them with registration of their land. FIDA’s sensitization and mediation programs have been backed up where necessary by litigation through FIDA’s USAID supported legal aid program to ensure that women’s rights are respected. The common (although legally erroneous) belief that women could not hold land in their own right is being transformed in the minds of traditional leaders, and the attitude changes are being spread to other sub counties.