Clipped Wings

By Dorah Kukunda (Published 31st October 2016)

When I was much younger, I was naughty and overly outspoken and so, I often found myself in trouble. Sure I got my share of canes but what I remember was that even then, my mother always encouraged me to ‘speak my mind’ and never to keep silent when I knew that something was wrong and because of that I grew up knowing to speak out when I felt something was not fair which has over the years shaped me and looking back, I can say that I am grateful to my ‘big head’ and to my mother’s wise words which have helped me to never settle for less. 

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many women in Northern Uganda whose rights to land and property inheritance are constantly being violated under the false pretext of culture/tradition. Recently, while assisting Prof. Jennifer Moore with her research on women survivors and peace builders in local communities in Uganda, we visited two support groups of women in Nwoya district and Pader district and interviewed them but among all the questions we asked, two questions stood out for me:

  • Can a woman buy land in her own name in your community?
  • Can a woman inherit property at the death of her parents or spouse?

These questions were majorly answered in the negative. According to Doreen, a 23 year old married woman and also a member of ‘uketu wa kwene’ support group, “a woman has no right on land; if a man has acquired you from your home and has brought you to his home, everything belongs to him. Anything the wife receives while at his home belongs to him unless it is a personal service for example if an organization is paying for your medical services in which case you can receive the service after he has given consent.” For the few women who said that a woman can buy land, they said this was only possible if they got permission from their husbands and in the case of widows and unmarried women, they could only purchase land with permission from the clan leaders. Regarding the issue of inheritance of property, with the exception of 1 or 2 women, the answer to this question was similar that a woman could not inherit property and only the sons can inherit. In the event that a man did not have sons, then his own brothers could inherit. When asked if they thought this was fair, one woman said that although it was not fair, women should respect and follow tradition.  All the women said that the barriers to their inheritance and ownership of land were as a result of culture and not national laws.

The position of the law Vis a Vis customs 

According to Article 21 of the Constitution of Uganda, all persons are equal before and under the law in all spheres of political, economic, social and cultural life and shall enjoy equal protection of law. The same Article goes ahead to say that a person shall not be discriminated against on the ground of sex, race, religion etc. As if to emphasize this point, Article 33 stipulates that women shall be accorded full and equal dignity of the person with men and Article 33 (6) is to the effect that laws, cultures, customs or traditions which are against the dignity, welfare or interest of women or undermine their status are prohibited by the constitution. Now in specific reference to land rights, under Article 26, every person has a right to own property either individually or in association with others and finally, S.27 of the Land Act is to the effect that any decision taken in respect of land held under customary tenure, whether in respect of land held individually or communally, shall be in accordance with the customs, traditions and practices of the community concerned, except that a decision which denies women or children or persons with a disability access to ownership, occupation or use of any land or imposes conditions which violate Articles 33, 34 and 35 of the Constitution on any ownership, occupation or use of any land shall be null and void. The simplest and clearest of these laws is Article 2 of the constitution which says that the constitution is the supreme law of the land and any other law or custom which is inconsistent with the constitution shall to the extent of its inconsistency be void. 

Uganda’s statutory laws provide protection to women’s rights to property but such protection is hindered by cultural norms in some societies.

It is 2016 and women everywhere are proud of how far they have come in their fight for gender equality, we have women members of parliament , women CEO’s, women presidents, and women leaders in various capacities yet still in some parts of the country and the world at large, women cannot buy land or even inherit property from their husbands and fathers as if it is a crime to be born female; a 'crime' which science has proven is entirely the fault of their fathers because it the man’s chromosome that determines the sex of a child. Women are prohibited from owning property and the excuses are packaged into the word ‘culture’, as if it was a blanket that shielded and justified the obviously unfair treatment of women. Men always say that nothing is holding back women from becoming independent and successful. They forget that if a woman’s identity is always attached to a man, then a woman can have nothing of her own; if women are not allowed to inherit property or even own land how then can they develop themselves? Culture in this respect is not progressive but simply selfish as it holds the economic capacity of women at a level much lower than that of men. 

“In most parts of the world, when a girl is born, her wings are clipped off. She is not able to fly”

Ziauddin Yousafzai-Malala Yousafzai’s father

Ziauddin Yousafzai was known as an advocate for education in Pakistan which has the second highest number of out of school children. His daughter Malala shared her father’s passion for learning and education and together, they became outspoken opponents of Taliban efforts to restrict education and stop girls from going to school. Although this was a risky venture that almost saw Malala being killed, in 2014, she went on to become the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.  (read Malala's story

If a butterfly’s wings have been clipped, then it is no longer a butterfly. Unable to fly, it becomes a peculiar insect that possesses no beauty whatsoever - it loses its identity. In the same way, women cannot fly if their wings have been clipped off. Women are incapable of living to their full potential when they have no wings; when they have no voice, when culture dictates that they cannot own land or inherit property because they are not male, when national law stipulates that they have rights but culture chokes these rights and women are left gasping for breath, being left with no option but to breath air contaminated by marginalization, suppression and poverty.

My message is clear and simple: as we seek to promote transitional justice, as we try to heal wounds that were inflicted by past abuses, as we try to help those who were violated achieve peace and justice, let us remember to help the women whose fate was determined when the midwife screamed with joy saying, “It’s a girl!” All women have a legal right to own or inherit land and there is need for all of us in our different capacities to empower and help them become independent. This will advance their status in society and in turn move their communities forward. It is our duty as human rights activists, using the different tools that we possess to pick up the clipped wings and sew them back onto the bodies of marginalized women, set them free and let them fly! 

The writer, Dorah Kukunda, was an intern at RLP Gulu, 1 June – 9 August 2016. She is a 4th year Bachelor of Laws student at Makerere University




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