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When it Comes to Land Rights, Women Should Never be an Afterthought

In Northern Uganda, as elsewhere, women are rarely thought of first, especially when it comes to land. There is one woman’s story that comes to mind: Rosalyn (not her real name) was a widow. She bought land with her late husband when he was still alive, near the local trading center in Pader district. Now that he has died, her in-laws have taken the land. They say that all of their brother’s land belongs to the family, and they say that no woman can have control over land. They are saying this even though it is not customary land – she bought it together with her husband using their own money so that they could have land to grow on for many years to come. Rosalyn had no idea what to do, and nowhere to go.

Today, we know that when women have secure land rights, the benefits are amplified. Women’s status goes up, children’s nutrition improves, and families earn higher incomes. However, despite an increasing focus on women’s land rights as a vitally important issue, very few people – including development experts – know how to concretely strengthen them in practice.

Eight years ago, with support from innovative donors, we embarked on a journey to collaboratively design and then field test an approach to secure land tenure for women. The approach took what was working for women in a community and built on it, thus incorporating the progressive aspects of the statutory and customary systems. Of primary importance was that women’s aspirations and needs were our starting place, not an afterthought.

With the Ugandan organizations ARTU, WORUDET, and others, we worked to understand what it would take to change the situation for women like Roslyn, in Northern Uganda. This was where the Starting with Women (SWW) approach began.

Working to strengthen women’s land rights in different cultures and in different legal contexts brings its own set of challenges. The particular land tenure situation of women can vary significantly from context to context. This can make it difficult to conceive of replicable or scalable solutions, contributing to a sense that the problem of women’s land tenure insecurity is intractable or that efforts to strengthen customary tenure are anathema to stronger land rights for women.

To complicate matters, because land tenure systems are part of a culture and gender roles, beliefs, and norms are also cultural, all land tenure systems have rules that are different for women and men, and certain factors that affect women are not an issue for men. What we know is that stronger land rights for women benefits not only women, but also their societies and economies.

To tackle these challenges, the SWW approach starts with women. This starting point is a necessary first step towards correcting gender imbalances in land tenure systems. Starting with women means grounding the design, implementation, and evaluation of a project in an assessment of women’s particular challenges, needs, opportunities, and aspirations.

There is much more to say about Starting With Women as an approach to improving land rights for women – how we did it, the process, the analysis, the outcomes, the evidence. Our video is a good starting place if you’d like to learn more. But I reckon it is best to hear from the participants themselves….

“I have noticed that my wife is more assertive and has participated in mediation of our family land conflicts many times, she is even called upon by neighbors to intervene in land conflicts because of the knowledge of women’s land rights she has gained from the project”

“Since the project has included us, we now recognize and work to promote land rights not only in the cultural context but also the statutory context….I also initiate individual visits to families that do not recognize women’s land rights and sensitize them” (Clan leader)

“…my participation in the group meetings has made me aware of women’s land rights. I even participated in helping a widow in my family to secure her land rights”

“In my community there used to be fighting especially on case of land that would lead to death or courts but now people negotiate because of the training we were given”

Starting with Women is not just a cute name, it is a way of thinking and acting that respects the autonomy and self-determination of women equally to those of men. It is a structured process for making sure that women are never an afterthought. Our approach in Northern Uganda really made a difference in women’s lives – there’s no reason this can’t now happen globally, so spread the word!

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