News

February 12, 2009

Women and Land in Uganda

Cristina Callagy ’09 writes from Kampala

Cristina Callagy ’09 (Hawthorne, N.Y.) is writing a thesis on the empowerment of women in Uganda for departmental honors in her major, anthropology and sociology. It builds on research she did in Uganda between her sophomore and junior years, working with Rexford Ahene, professor of economics and business and senior technical adviser for the Uganda Private Sector Competitiveness Project. She wrote from Kampala about that work.

Letter from Uganda

Kampala, July 29, 2007. I have been researching gender equity in Uganda and how this affects women’s land-ownership rights. In general, Uganda has a very patriarchal society with deeply ingrained traditional ideals, and thus women are highly subjugated, especially in the rural areas. This makes it extremely difficult for them to own land, which hinders the country’s productivity as a whole.

The project Professor Ahene is working on through the Government of Uganda and the World Bank is aiming to increase the country’s productivity through increased land-tenure security. An understanding of women’s issues is crucial so that effective reforms can be made.

I’ve read countless articles about the prevalence of polygamy, the effects of HIV/AIDS, the amount of corruption in local governments that prevent women from owning land, traditional notions of land ownership, and power dynamics in the household. With such a wealth of background knowledge, I felt confident that spending two weeks in Uganda to examine the situation on the ground would only confirm what I already knew. How wrong I was.

Instead, coming here and interviewing men and women alike, I found that nothing can top the information gleaned from personal conversations. Survey data will tell you that 30 percent of marriages are polygamous, but only the women on the ground can tell you that almost every Ugandan man has several women on the side – and women are powerless to stop this behavior because of their economic dependence, largely due to their lack of land rights, on these unfaithful men.

I’ve read about how a provision that could go into law making it compulsory for spouses to co-own family land would be beneficial to women, but it took interviews with several women who own property independent of their husbands to understand why many women are just as against this provision as the men. Is it fair to ask women who have overcome society’s prescriptions for female behavior to share what they have worked so hard for?

I had read that the payment of a bride price (where the husband-to-be pays the woman’s family a fee before he is allowed to marry her) connotes that women are property, and of course property cannot own property. But after listening to the most educated women speak of how their husbands paid for them and hearing men talk about how paying a bride price is a sign of respect and honor for the woman, I had to reconsider my stance.

Being here – living in the capital city of Kampala and spending every day in the Ministry of Lands, Housing, and Urban Development with Professor Ahene, plus venturing out into the more remote areas to attend workshops and see the dismal condition of the District Land Offices – has given me far more insight into the factors behind women’s inability to own land. It has made me consider some angles that never would have come up had I relied solely on articles and books.

Professor Ahene and the EXCEL program have given me an invaluable experience. This was my first travel experience not as a tourist. It was very gratifying to see in my passport a Ugandan visa with the “business” box checked off. (And we still got to do some touristy things, like see the source of the Nile River and hear traditional music.)

The experience has taught me much more than just the factors that hinder women’s rights to land in Uganda. In fact, it has opened up new possibilities. I feel that working with developing countries and considering their socio-cultural and historical backgrounds before making reform recommendations is something I could do as a profession.

What will I remember most about Uganda? The stories from incredible women, the beautiful scenery, the boda-boda motorcyclists who weave through traffic as miniature taxis, choosing not to eat goat meat although it was served everywhere, enjoying a good exchange rate, really getting to know my professor, and, by the end of my two weeks, finally not getting stares for being the only white woman in the office building. It’s been an incredible trip.

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