Gender and Land Rights Database

Uganda

Customary norms, religious beliefs and social practices that influence gender-differentiated land rights

  • Customary laws regarding land, family life and inheritance are extremely important because over 75 percent of Ugandan land is held under customary tenure systems.
  • Colonial laws distorted the customary tenure systems that guaranteed women a certain level of tenure security. More power was given to individual heads of households, who became the titled landowners, thus altering the communitarian tenure arrangements and reinforcing the patriarchal systems. Women lost many of their secondary rights to land (3).
  • Land tenure is often regulated according to the marriage regimes in place in Uganda. Most marriages are customary and therefore not legally registered. Moreover, many marriages are polygamous, which further reduces women’s rights to land inheritance (3).
  • A woman’s secondary right to use her husband’s land may be revoked for several reasons. The most common grounds for revoking women’s land rights are when the husband abandons his wife or chases her away from his land. This often occurs when a husband remarries and places his new wife on his land. An abandoned wife cannot remarry without losing her rights to her first husband’s land. 
  • In most groups, a woman who separates from her husband loses her rights automatically. In other situations, land grabbing and conflicts over inheritance diminish women’s access to land. As a result, some parents are stipulating that their daughters receive land in their will, or actually transferring the land while still alive so that it may be witnessed (3).
  • The unregistered marriages leave women with few rights to land and when customary divorces do occur, the woman is rarely entitled to anything.
  • Under many customary marriage regimes, a husband may divorce his wife for not having a male child. If a woman divorces a man and returns to her birth family, she relinquishes all rights to land. Moreover, widows are denied all rights to inherit land under customary regimes. A government study of men’s wills showed that only 10 percent of men left their land to their wives in a trust for their children, while 90 percent of the wills directed the land to be given to the children directly and stipulated that the wife would be taken care of by the children (3).
  • When a woman’s parents die while she is already married, in most groups she is not considered at all for inheritance. Specifically, in the Banyankore and Baganda groups, a woman’s right to inherit land is only viewed in terms of her responsibility to take care of her children. Without children, women have no independent right to own land. In other communities, such as the Bushenyi, sons automatically inherit their father’s land (3).
  • Despite the mostly patriarchal structure of Uganda, several ethnic groups practise matrilineal land inheritance. These include the Acholi, Kigezi, Lango and Alur. Women in Buganda have also enjoyed more land rights than women in other parts of the country. Under the mailo scheme, women began to inherit more land and some even bought land. In the 1990s, a study showed that 39 percent of female-headed households had inherited land (although smaller plots than men) and that 30 percent of female-headed households had bought land (3).
  • Dowry and bride price practices are used for customary marriages. A dowry, also known as a trousseau, is the money, goods, or estate that a woman brings to her husband in marriage. Bride price, also known as bride wealth, is an amount of money or property or wealth paid to the parents of a woman for the right to marry their daughter. These practices contribute to reinforcing the view that women are property and thus cannot inherit property themselves (11).

Sources: numbers in brackets (*) refer to sources displayed in the Bibliography