Rural Women Farm Half the World’s Food, But Have Few Legal and Cultural Rights to Land Ownership

By Nicole Lafond

Irene Khan, Justine Uvuza, Beatrice Duncan and others speak at a panel discussion at the New York Bar Association on March March 15 2018.
Credits: Nicole Lafond

For 66-year-old Uganda widow Pasculina Oming, the quest for farmland that is rightfully hers has cost her an arm.

Two, in fact.

A widow since 2014 in the Lira District of northern Uganda, Oming has been caring for herself, her seven sons and one mentally disabled daughter by farming the land she inherited from her husband. While federal law in Uganda recognizes Oming as the owner of the acreage, the customs of her local tribe, Iceme, dictate that the land belongs to her late husband’s family. In the spring of 2014, Oming was walking home from the market with her nieces when her brother-in-law attacked her with a “panga” machete, attempting to kill her for what was culturally perceived as arrogance for staking her claim over the land. Her brother-in-law, Oketch, chopped off her fingers first, delivered several blows to her head and then pinned her down and chopped off both her arms—effectively stealing her farming livelihood.

Oming has received no justice from local courts for the attack, but a Ugandan legal team called Barefoot Law that is working to help rural women gain access to land in remote parts of the country has picked up Oming’s case. Irene Khan, the director of the International Development Law Organization, an intergovernmental organization that works to encourage development by making legal help more accessible, shared Oming’s story at a United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women event in March. It was part of an analysis of case studies of women like Oming, who face legal battles, social repercussions and physical assault around the globe as they attempt to advocate for the legal and customary right to own and farm their own property.

Attacks on women farmers from the family of late husbands have become increasingly common in Uganda and other Eastern Africa countries where customary laws of rural tribes dictate much of the day-to-day access to land and resources, experts say.

In Uganda — where women make 39 percent of a man’s wage, according to the World Bank — women make up 80 percent of the agricultural workforce and conduct nearly 90 percent of labor associated with food production, yet they own less than 20 percent of the land in the country and just 7 percent of officially registered land, according to the Global Policy Forum. Uganda’s statistics are reflective of global norms, according to U.N. Women. Around the world, women produce more than half of the world’s food supply but own less than 20 percent of farmable land.

The average female labor share of crop production is estimated at 56 percent in Uganda because of a variety of factors. For example, according to a 2012 report from the Journal of Sustainable Development, access to fertilizer is one key factor in how much profit a farm can return in any given year and female-run farms on average use fertilizer 4 percent less than male-run farms. This is largely due to the fact that farmers who own the land they are cultivating, have access to credit, which “eases the cash constraints and as such enables farmers to afford fertilizers,” the report said.

No law expressly forbids women from owning land in Uganda, and statutory law actually provides some protections for women who want to try to acquire or inherit land, but customary practices in rural communities make access to land severely limited for women, according to the Global Policy Forum, a watchdog group that follows the work of the United Nations.

In comparison with other countries in Eastern Africa, Uganda has seen an uptick in the co-ownership of land between men and women, but in areas of the country where customary law is followed more strictly, a woman’s name is many times excluded from official documentation or the agreement can dissolve if the relationship ends, according to a study by Feed the Future, the U.S.’s global food security campaign.

While Uganda is made up of 56 tribes, each with its own interpretation of the pillars of Ugandan culture, the right of a deceased husband’s family to snag land retroactively from the widow is widely accepted, according to a 2001 report from the Yale Human Rights Journal.  

That’s the case in much of Eastern Africa and rural communities in underdeveloped parts of the world as a whole. This complicates the legal community’s efforts to advocate for rural women, according to Khan.

“The more I have become engaged in the issues of women’s rights, the less I have seen the relevance of law,” Khan said.

But the challenges are worth it, she said, arguing that securing land rights for rural women is among the “most effective ways of empowering these women because access to land is fundamental to food security,” she said.

“It determines how much food she can produce, sell, consume, which affects not only her own situation, but the situation of her family and children,” she said. “Land is collateral for credit … its an economic asset, but land is also a social asset, especially for women because with land, comes social status. With land comes political influence, we know that historically in many countries in the 19th Century, for example, landowners in England were allowed to vote. That’s why land matters so much to women.”

Justine Uvuza, the senior land policy adviser on gender for the Landesa Rural Development Institute, agrees that the right to own land extends far beyond just rural women’s legal standing. In Uganda, just 37 percent of women have reported they inherited land from their fathers, versus 71 percent of men, according to a 2014 report from Landesa.  

“When we talk about the rights of women and land, we are talking about family law, we are talking about land law, we are talking about citizenship, we are talking about the ways of child custody, the land rights of the children,” she said. “It’s a combination of laws that has to be addressed together to secure the land rights of rural women.”

Beatrice Duncan, Rule of Law Advisor and Focal Point on Indigenous Issues for UN Women, claims the main factor that contributes to customary practices that target women is simple: Society as a whole “is not used to seeing a woman succeed.”

She said in rural communities in some East African countries, a woman is labeled a witch for something as simple as wearing a new article of clothing. The larger the asset a woman possess, the higher the social stakes and owning land is considered the top of the social hierarchy in many parts of Eastern Africa.

Cultural customs for marriage also play into the women’s hesitancy to advocate for their inheritance rights, Duncan said. When U.N. Women, an arm of the United Nations that works to empower women, was in Ghana in 2014, women in rural communities told them that gaining full ownership of land when their husband dies is not a good idea.

“They said they want an equitable system for the property to be distributed so women get a third, children get a third and the extended family get a third,” she said. “They know the extended family is critical for their well-being. If all the property goes to the widow and the children, how dare you go to the uncle and ask him to help you give your daughter away for marriage.”

While customary practices in individual countries often make or break a woman’s ability to access land that is rightfully hers, the international community as a whole has also not done enough to recognize the rights of rural women, according to an official familiar with the United Nations process for adopting a stance on the rural women’s rights.

Jourdan Williams, who works for the NGO branch of the Commission on the Status of Women, wrote the initial commission document that was submitted to the U.N. Women’s Council that included heads of state. The council spent much of the two-week Commission on the Status of Women summit discussing the resolution the UN would adopt this year as its official stance on the rights of rural women.

Williams and her organization asked the council to adopt a statement that would give women the right to own, inherit and profit off of land. But after two weeks of infighting – fueled Williams said, by conflicting international political agendas – the council could only come to the consensus that rural women have the right to own land.

And with 86 out of 121 countries that were surveyed in a 2012 Social Institution and Gender Index report having some form of discriminatory inheritance laws or practices in place that limit widows and daughters from inheriting land, Williams said she was disappointed that the rural woman’s right to inherit land wasn’t a staple of the 2018 resolution.  

“This is why it’s so difficult for lawyers to defend rural women. They already have little legal legs to stand on, now the U.N. can’t even come to a consensus on how they’re allowed to acquire and use the land.”

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