Kampala, UGANDA – After almost two decades living with a man nearly twice her age, who first got her pregnant when she was 15, Jane Zamukunda finally had one small comfort: a nice home that she felt was hers.
Her partner and father of her three children had bought a piece of land in the Nansana suburb of Kampala, where they built a house together. It was comfortable by most standards, with furniture and a TV. But most important to Zamukunda, now 28, was the fact that she had a key to the house: unusual in a country where it’s rare for a woman to own property.
“That was what I aspired to, to have a house for my children,” said Zamukunda, who works as a tailor.
Then one day in 2015, Zamukunda returned from work to find her home completely empty.
“[My partner] basically cleaned out the whole house,” she said.
Different variations of this scene play out every day across Uganda, where both official legislation and cultural laws deny women their full rights to own, inherit and control the use of land and property. Women make up more than 70 percent of the country’s agricultural workforce, but less than 20 percent of women own land in their own right.
The equal property rights afforded to women by law are often overruled by traditional customs. In a 2016 survey, respondents who were asked about 14 “serious” justice problems affecting Ugandans put land as the No. 1 issue.
A month after Zamukunda’s husband disappeared, during which time she and her children slept on the floor of their empty home, a group of men carrying padlocks confronted her and told her the house had been sold to them.
“They threatened to cut me up if I even went back to the house, so I had to run,” Zamukunda said. She took refuge in her brother’s one-bedroom house, about 10km (6.2 miles) away in Kawempe slum.
When Zamukunda went to local leaders for help, they told her, “Your man was right to sell, after all, you’re not even married.” She then went to the police who told her they would search for and arrest her partner. She has heard nothing from them – or him – since.
‘Cultural Laws Are Ingrained so Deep’
Desperate to keep the home she had spent 10 years sharing with her partner, Zamukunda sought help from Barefoot Law, a Ugandan nonprofit social enterprise offering free legal guidance. Zamukunda said she feels she knows more about the law than many women, but Maureen Nuwamanya, a legal officer at Barefoot Law, said that even if Ugandan women are aware of their rights, that doesn’t guarantee those rights will be recognized.
“Cultural laws are ingrained so deep” that land disputes affect Ugandan women “regardless of the fact that you know your rights,” Nuwamanya said. “It’s a patriarchal society.”
Barefoot Law advised Zamukunda that, among other things, the men who evicted her had taken advantage of the fact that cohabitation isn’t recognized by law.
If a couple lives and buys property or land together without getting married and then separates, the woman usually has no claim to that property or land.
But even if women are married to their partners, their rights to land ownership and inheritance are often undermined by customary laws built on “dominant patriarchal mindsets [and] practices,” said Isaac Ssemakadde, CEO of human rights group Legal Brains Trust.
Most land tribunals consist entirely of men, who often discriminate against women when it comes to cases of property ownership. And women are also often disadvantaged by illiteracy, making it hard for them to fight for their rights, said Regina Bafaki, executive director of NGO Action for Development.
Bafaki receives daily queries from women over land conflicts and said her organization is one of several that offers property rights training for women. But home duties mean women often don’t have time to attend.
“I also think the other challenge is more or less lack of political will to support women in acquiring land,” Bafaki said.
A government spokesman did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Long-running Land Battles
In Uganda, where women have protested over land rights in long-running disputes, there has been recent criticism from human rights groups, the church and the public over government plans to amend the constitution to allow it to take private land for projects.
Winfred Ngabiirwe, the executive director of NGO Global Rights Alert, said the amendment, if passed, would result in “legalized land grabbing,” adding that women would be most affected. “Land is for feeding, it’s employment, [children] go to school because mothers sell crops,” she said.
With help from Barefoot Legal, Zamukunda has won the battle for her property, at least for now. The organization referred her to the office of the district commissioner, who halted the eviction. Representatives from Barefoot Legal also accompanied her to meet with her neighbors and local leaders to explain that she would be moving back in and any issues should be directed to her lawyers. Zamukunda and her children were finally able to return to their home. She cut the padlocks off the door herself.
Zamukunda said she has not seen or heard from her former partner or the strangers who tried to evict her since the dispute began. She knows there is a chance they could reappear, but said if they do, “I have help.”
Now she wants the government to make sure what happened to her won’t happen to other women. She wants the government to look at recognizing property rights between cohabiting couples.
But more importantly, Zamukunda wants all women in Uganda to know their property rights and get help to fight for them.
“I saw a case on the news that is exactly like mine, so I’m not the only one affected,” she said. “I want other women to be empowered.”