The second tragedy for Acholi women

Vicky Atto is a 42-year-old peasant in the small village of Paraber, in Atyak Sub-county, Amuru District. As head of a household of 17, she works hard every day to fulfil her role of provider. And yet despite the family’s needs, Atto has only a small holding of about one acre that she has got to squeeze a livelihood out of. In her rural setting where one’s land is one’s god, having a small piece of landholding keeps her among the poorest.

The sadder truth is that her family hasn’t always had only one acre to survive on. Before an Internal Displacement Peoples (IDP)amp was set up in Paraber village in 1996, Atto says her family, then headed by her father, was comfortable with seven acres of land.

Then the IDP camp was set up and those with land were required by the government to let squatters temporarily sojourn on their plots the squatters were supposed to vacate after the war. However in the case of Atto’s family, the sojourners refused to vacate in 2006 when the LRA insurgency ended despite the government’s announcement that war-time squatters return to their homes.

Atto narrates that because her father died at the height of the war in the early 2000s, since 2006 the squatters have captured more of her family land, shrinking it to the current single acre. The peasant woman says she is now worried about how much longer she will stay on the remaining piece, because the squatter-cum-grabbers continually try to push her away – saying she ought to go away because as a woman she can’t claim inheritance of her father’s land, even inventing false claims that her father was only their squatter.

Rivulets of tears trickle down Atto’s cheeks as she laments: “It’s primarily because I am a woman that I have lost most of my land. I’m sure these people would have gone away if I were a man, say if my father was still alive and was the one facing off with them.”

Atto is just one of thousands of women on the receiving end of land disputes in the land-wrangles that have wrecked the Acholi sub-region of northern Uganda. Last month a land conflict-focused Legal Aid Open week, which was also intended to serve as a fact-finding inquiry, was conducted in the two Acholi districts of Amuru and Pader by the NGOs Action Aid-Uganda, and Legal Service Providers Network (LASPNET). One of the most prominent findings reported was that women have been the most violated and affected in the land wrangles. Of the 314 land-wrangles recorded in Amuru District over the open week, 250 cases had women on the receiving end, while of the 290 cases recorded in Pader, 234 had women on the receiving end.

Trampled by tradition and culture
David Komakech, the Amuru District community liaison officer of Uganda Land Alliance, says what compounds the situation is how the chauvinistic Acholi culture treats women in regard to ownership of land. Komakech says in a tenure system, based on the Acholi traditional lifestyle of long ago, where tribal leaders determine land ownership and usage, and where land can only be owned by men, women find themselves in a very unfortunate situation.

“The female children of a deceased land owner are generally not allowed to inherit their father’s land. Even the female’s own male siblings chase them off the land, telling them that as women their share is on their husbands’ side. If they happen to be unmarried they are told to get married.

Yet on the husband’s side too, once the husband dies, the family members will also push the widow off their clan land saying she isn’t a member of their clan. If a widow returns to her father’s land with her children, she is sent away on the pretext that she is bringing encroachers from another clan onto the land,” Komakech describes their plight.

Richard Otim, of the women’s human rights NGO FIDA, says although times are changing and many women are standing up to defy the ancient culture, they still face challenges because the cultural leaders still hold power in society and use it to protect the set-up of old.

Otim says, “These cultural leaders (tribal chiefs known as Rwot, and of different ranks from village to clan and tribal level) are the court system that is largely followed. They normally have the last say in arbitrating the land wrangles.”

Economically Disaantaged
“Women also lose out the most because they are the economically less aantaged,” Irene Achieng of the Acholi Women Aocacy Network states. “Amidst these land wrangles you need money to put up a successful defence of your land –to transport the local leaders and may be the police to your place, to pay the surveyors and land authorities in case you are to pursue a certificate of title, sometimes even to simply bribe off the authorities and police. But the peasant women struggling just to find a meal can hardly meet any of those costs, especially in the far-flung villages where even coming by Shs5,000 is hard.”

In Olam Nyungu village of Atiak Sub-county, Maria Alal says the only reason she hasn’t been able to ward encroachers off her family land (which encroachers have apparently eaten into more than half of her original holding) is because she doesn’t have the money to transport the authorities to handle her case. Alal says that last year she attempted to get the police to settle her dispute, but she was asked to fuel the police car yet she didn’t have the money.

She says she also discovered that to get a certificate of title, she needed to transport the surveyors to the contested land, feed them for the time they were working on her case and ultimately pay some money to the land registrar’s office, all of which money she couldn’t find. She says ironically, one of her neighbours who has some children working in Gulu Town was able to meet the costs for the process, which enabled him to unfairly get part of her land onto his land title.

“Only legal aid can help the women here,” Komakech says.
Achieng of the Women Aocacy Network also contends that indeed the more desperate condition of women in the land wrangles hasn’t been particularly addressed, neither by government nor by anyone else who has tried to intervene.

Atto is of the same view and is begging for help: “The government should help us, otherwise we are unfairly losing our land to those who have money,” she says. Hers is a plea you should expect to hear from almost every woman you will come across in Acholi entangled in a land wrangle.

Over powered

Komakech says violence erupts in most of these land wrangles and women are the most hit.
“When feuding over land, people normally pull out weapons (like spears and bows and arrows) against each other,” Komakech says. Adding that they do so on tribal basis, on clan basis, on family basis –feuding over boundaries, inheritance, original ownership, refusal of squatters to vacate, among others.

“And because they are the weaker sex, women have always been the most vulnerable wherever violence has arisen,” he says
Komakech points out that we are talking about a society where, owing to a history of insurgency, most of the men have either had an experience participating in violence or they have come to see violence as an acceptable course for settling disputes. “Imagine a woman who has to contend for land with a former rebel, or with a man whose view of violence has been shaped by witnessing his entire family get murdered,” he says.

Widowedorphaned by lra rebels
These land wrangles have more than anything else been attributed to the insurgency as the primary cause. Atkinson Ojara, the Lamogi Sub-county chairperson, blames the LRA insurgency for having driven people from their villages into IDP camps, thereby distorting the existing ownership regime and subsequently causing wrangles. The insurgency is also indicted for destroying people’s economic power, such that land is now the only resource the people look to, thus the bitter squabbles over it.

However, for Irene Achieng of the Acholi Women Aocacy Network, one thing most people ignore is that the LRA war pushed the female gender into a position where the women would have a harder time than their male counterparts.

“As a great number of Acholi men died in the war, it left a big number of women widowed with young children to look after,” says Achieng. “Moreover, most of these widows were left to look after an average of about 10 children, not only hers, but also those of fallen family members like brothers, sons and cousins.”

Always ignored by interventions
ULA’s Komakech says that against the grim background, what is even more poignant is the fact that in considering and addressing the land wrangles in Acholi, much has been considered and incorporated in designing interventions but almost no one has paid attention to the special plight of women. Yet the women need it.

SOURCE: Daily Monitor

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