Wednesday, 11 February 2015

The Promise of Paralegals - Promoting Women's Property Rights in Urban Uganda

Christine’s troubles began with the death of her husband in a tragic motor accident in 2010. Closely after the funeral she found herself forced to open up the doors to her home in a Kampala suburb. Clan members had decided it should be searched. But the persons entering were no ordinary raiders, not even strangers – they were her step-children.  And they were looking for a land title. 

In Uganda – and throughout the world – gender inequality limits women’s rights to ownership and inheritance of productive resources such as land and housing. Women’s lack of access to, use of and control over land, housing and other properties not only constitutes a rights’ violation, but also limits economic development – of women, communities and entire nations. 

The barriers to the realization of women’s property rights typically include a gap between statutory law protecting women’s property rights, and customary law favoring men’s ownership and patrilineal inheritance, as well as discriminatory cultural norms and practices. As a result, women are often neither aware of, nor able to claim and enforce their rights to property. 

Illustratively, statutory law in Uganda does provide for the equal property rights of women. In fact, the Constitution of Uganda (1995) – the supreme law of the country – is often referred to as one of the most comprehensive and gender sensitive constitutions in sub-Saharan Africa (Tamale 1999). In its totality, it provides for the equality of women and men in all spheres of life, including in marriage in which context the issue of property rights of women is assessed; it prohibits discrimination of all forms and promotes the protection of women’s rights (Mulumba 2006).

Furthermore, Article 33 (6) states that “laws, cultures, customs or traditions which are against the dignity, welfare or interest of women or which undermine their status, are prohibited by this Constitution”. And yet, the gulf to actual practice remains wide.

Studies reveal a persisting gender gap in terms of property and asset ownership between women and men in Uganda. Women generally own less land and housing than men, and the assets owned are of lower quality (ICRW 2011). Much of this gap is commonly ascribed to the dual legal system recognizing both customary and statutory law. Although in theory, statutory law should prevail over customary law, in reality customary law and practice often takes precedence – mainly due to a combination of lack of knowledge of statutory law, and the persisting view that statutory law opposes and contradicts customary law and practices.

Shaped by society’s patriarchal norms, these laws and practices gives priority to men’s ownership of land, housing and property, while women are relegated to “secondary” rights; access to and use of properties and assets though their husbands, fathers, brothers or other male relatives (ICRW 2011). This rights violation – manifested through, for example, disinheritance and land grabbing, leaves women in a highly vulnerable position in society and prevents economic development and independence.

Christine, as a result of the stress and pressure she faced; being threatened with eviction from her matrimonial home and land, suffered from depression and eventually stopped eating. Luckily she had foreseen the dangers of the situation she was in. The land title was already placed with a catholic nun for safekeeping.

Christine (L) and fellow members of Our Lady of Charity women's group
Rights promotion through paralegal trainings
Christine is a member of Our Lady of Charity Women’s Group – one of six groups receiving trainings in paralegal skills under the project ‘Promoting Urban Poor Women’s Housing and Property Rights’. Implemented by SSA: UHSNET and funded by UN Women, the project aims at empowering urban poor women to access, use and control property and adequate housing for economic development.

Through the paralegal trainings, women are empowered with knowledge on statutory law and human rights, and provided with skills of mediation and advocacy in order to spot and handle instances of injustices within their communities regarding land, housing and property. Community watchdogs are formed.

By Increasing rights awareness and understanding among the women’s groups, as well as developing capacity to promote and protect their own and other’s property rights, the trainings aim to bridge the gender gap in terms of asset ownership and allow for women’s human and economic development.

Having attended the paralegal training, Christine changed her perception of her own situation. “After being trained in paralegal skills”, she says, “I was enlightened on my rights to inheritance of my late husband’s properties, as I was legally married to him in church”. The Chairperson of the group – an experienced community watchdog and paralegal – facilitated her contact with SSA: UHSNET, which in turn connected her to Uganda Land Alliance (ULA).

“A lawyer from Uganda Land Alliance helped me through the family court division to acquire my rightful share of the properties, including land and other properties currently being sold and the dividends divided among the five step children and me”, she says.

The trainings indicated good results at an early stage, implying positive impacts on the beneficiaries and their surrounding communities. For that reason, SSA: UHSNET initiated a process to document testimonies of the effects of the activity – in order to consolidate lessons learned and to provide a foundation for information sharing and dissemination of a ‘good’ practice. The gathered testimonies revealed a number of positive effects in relation to the objective of promoting and protecting women’s property rights.

As a result of increased legal knowledge, several beneficiaries were able to formalize and secure legal tenure to land and property already in their (informal) possession – thus reducing the risks of land grabbing. Others, like Christine, have been able to dispute ongoing rights violations, claim their rightful possessions and secure lawful entitlements to land and housing.

Agatha, community watchdog and secretary of SWID women's group
The impact of community watchdogs
Some have taken on the role of fully fledged community watchdogs. One of them is Agatha – a member of SWID women’s group in Jinja. Her modesty is lined with a subtle sense of confidence as she narrates a case she has recently handled. Her voice is soft, words informed.

The story is about a woman, originally from Northern Uganda but owning land in Walukuba District near Jinja, upon which she has resided for 56 years. When she in 2011 went blind, a neighbor decided to grab part of her land. The Town Clerk, unfortunately, sided against her – allegedly due to tribal bias (the woman not being of Busoga origin). “The markstone”, says Agatha, “has already been changed”.

“So we came and talked to her as paralegals”, she continues. “We had all the documents; we went up to the IGs office and delivered a letter, which they still haven’t replied to. But they say they will, that they will come and see the land”.  

Agatha became a community watchdog and paralegal several years ago after having attended several paralegal trainings, one of which was provided by SSA: UHSNET. She is experienced; radiates devotion and community engagement. 

But it wasn’t always like that. “Before I used to not even care about documents concerning land, I used to think it’s the man’s job to have those documents, I used to not even care if my name was on the documents”, she says. With the paralegal trainings, however, things changed:

“The paralegal training helped me to know more about law and policies in Uganda. Many of us in the group, we are the ones who know now; we are educating others in the community, about human rights, about women’s rights. Many women are suffering”, says Agatha. 

She has handled numerous cases, ranging from land disputes and domestic quarrels to rape cases and child abuse charges. And she is convinced of the good of her and her colleagues work:

“The community is benefiting because when we intervene, we show them what to do and where to go, especially women; they don’t know. They sit back and say if my property is grabbed, if I go to the police, they will ask me for money. Then we say; we can go with you. So they benefit by getting courage from us.”

While the trainings have surely impacted the lives of the beneficiaries to the better, the documentation process also revealed the long way still ahead. Ignorance and lack of women’s rights awareness among local authorities, as well as the lack of engagement with men on gender issues are two examples of obstacles paramount to deal with. These are important lessons for the shaping of the development agenda of the future. 

At the African Union Heads of States’ Summit in Addis Ababa, January 30-31, the spotlight was on the “Year of Women’s Empowerment and Development towards Africa’s Agenda 2063.” “There can be no sustainable progress without progress for women”, said UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. “They are the change agents of the future”. 

As evidenced by many of the documented testimonies, change is indeed possible. 

According to Agatha, as soon as she was selected as a watchdog she felt she had to do it – to help the community – and that she “should do it always, without delay”. 

“Because when you delay, things go bad,” she adds.

Let’s take her word for it – a change agent of the present.   
The above testimonies are excerpts from the documentation of the effects of the paralegal trainings under the project “Promoting Urban Poor Women’s Housing and Property Rights”. The full report will be published in March 2015.    

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