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Working for widow's land rights in Uganda

01 May 2019

He had been drinking at his sisters’ says Evelyn, ‘he came to our house. He pulled a matchstick from his pocket. His sister followed him saying, ‘why do you do this?’ He took some grass, lit it and set fire to our house.’

Photo: Garry Moore

Evelyn, 36, from the Gulu District, in the Acholi region of Northern Uganda describes the night in 2015 when the uncle of her late husband set her house on fire. The uncle’s sister removed the grass before it could do lasting damage to her house but Evelyn was devastated. It was the latest incident in a land dispute that started shortly before her husband died in 2011.

The short film ‘Evelyn’s land’ tells the story of how Evelyn lost her land and looks at the problem of land rights in the Acholi region focusing on the work of Trocaire and its partner Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative.

By 2015, Evelyn was left with nothing but a quarter acre of land. It is not enough to feed her children. ‘When we have run out of food, I go to work in other people’s gardens for money.’


For Evelyn the land grabbing began in a seemingly innocuous way. Shortly after her husband died in 2011, the uncle told her that an acre of land must be sold to pay for his burial. She was ok with this and with the clan’s approval for the sale. But the selling continued, bit by bit. When her signature was forged for the documentation of one sale, she protested, demanding to see the document. In defiance, she hid it. This is what prompted the attempted burning of her house in 2015.

The tradition of customary land

It is true that Evelyn was not legally married to her husband. Traditionally in Uganda, the groom pays a dowry for his wife that is set by her family. Frequently the price is too high for the husband to pay in full so a verbal agreement of marriage is made. However, without full payment of the dowry the marriage is not considered official. The case is then made against the woman and her children having any rights to family land.

In over 90% of the Acholi region, land is owned communally by clans. The system is known as customary land tenure and is recognised legally in Uganda’s constitution.

In fact, protection of widows and orphans is decreed orally in Acholi tradition. The clan maintains powers of oversight to ensure that the interests of children and future generations are considered. But sadly there is limited accountability to make traditional leaders uphold these principles in practice.


Because the customs of communal land ownership in Acholi have not been written down, with customs transferring orally through the generations, the system is open to misinterpretation, much of it wilful. A rapidly growing population and a brutal civil war have also aggravated the scope for confusion and disputes over land rights.

Beginning in 1986, the Acholi region was at the epicentre of one of the most vicious and protracted civil conflicts in Africa. At its peak in 2004-05, some ninety percent of the population of the region, over one million people, were forcibly displaced into camps. Evelyn and her family lived in one such camp from 2004 to 2008.

With widespread violence and upheaval as people began returning to their land in 2008, land boundaries were heavily disputed.

Abdala Latif Nasur works with the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI), a key partner for Trócaire in the region. This organisation brings together the religious leaders of seven different faiths. It started in the 1990s in response to the civil war but it now focuses on carrying out vital land rights work. He explains how the war triggered an outbreak of land disputes:

“There emerged new generations who did not know what the land practice was in the past. People lived displaced for many years. They came home after the hostilities, the elders who would have guided people had died. People used to use features likes trees, hills, streams as demarcations for land. Most of that knowledge disappeared in the course of the war. People, the new generations, got lost with memories, some fake memories.

Incidents of land grabbing, the sale or lease of land previously used by local communities to outside investors is a problem in the region.

“The grabbers are always people with money, they are always elites. They are smart that in such a way they can influence bigger interests. Those cases always drag, take some time. The grabber always want to fight. They know, ‘I have money, these are vulnerable people and its worse if its women. These cases are sensitive and we need to do a lot of networking and building alliances to handle them.’

The way forward for Evelyn

Abdala told us; ‘for Evelyn’s case, she is not legally married. That really puts her in a dilemma. At her husband’s place, she has no rights over land and productive properties in that family. Worst of all she is a widow. Double trouble now. But what we hope to do following the customs and the law of this country is to use her children to be able to get back the land. Because before the law and the customs, the children have rights.’

Abdala says ARLPI have a high success rate in mediating land rights conflicts.

“ARLPI use non-violence approaches. We strictly promote alternative dispute resolution, based on the fact that these are customary land tenure systems. This land is used by everybody.

First of all we educate the people to understand the customary practice and what the law says. Two, we promote dialogue. And then we do mediations.”

They do everything they can to resolve disputes before they go to the courts as families like Evelyn’s cannot afford to pay costly legal fees. In a mediation, parties sit down with the clan leaders and work out their dispute together. Evelyn will need all her strength for this mediation. Abdala says; ‘we told her, you need to be very strong and advance this case to the bigger clan. You go to the bigger clan with the children and complain bitterly.”

In the lead up to mediations, ARLPI offer support for people like Evelyn by researching the background to their case, identifying where breaches in customary law have been made and informing them of their rights. Where necessary they also seek the support of government bodies.

Abdala says; “we shall have a dialogue with the clan, we shall tell the clan, ‘this is not right, in this case, if you are not looking at this woman not having legal rights over this land, consider these children, these are children of your clan, where do you expect these children to stay when your land has been sold away?” The clan structure in Acholi is made up of sub clans and larger clans which they form part of. “We will go to the major clan and say, ‘there is a woman who came to us, she told us she has reported the case to you, what are you doing?’”

Mapping the future

The Acholi Religious Leaders and Trócaire are also working with communities to persuade them to move away from a strictly oral tradition of land ownership.

Mary Baganizi hails from Western Uganda, near the Rwanda border. She has worked for Trócaire on land rights issues for the last five and a half years. She says Trócaire and its partner organisations in the Acholi region have worked on persuading people to mark their land boundaries clearly, develop maps of their land, and develop written documentation of who owns their land.

Mary and Abdala concede that there is still a huge cultural resistance to this. Mary says ‘some people still think, ‘nobody can take my land, why should I demarcate it, why should I map it?’ so we say to them, ‘yes, you know your boundaries but then you do not know if your children or your children’s children will be knowing those boundaries so if it is documented and mapped clearly, at least you save the future of your children and your children’s children.’

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