The High Stakes of Land
Together, ICRW and the ULA have developed a model to fill that vacuum. The program offers basic training in property law and land rights to respected women in their communities, equipping them with the skills and resources to advise others. These paralegals now form a valuable network across Uganda, acting as both educators and legal advocates in rural areas that otherwise would have none. Now, if a woman’s husband dies and she faces eviction, she can turn to a local paralegal for help.
Jane Nabunnya is one of those paralegals. Since 2001, the 43-year-old mother of two has served the Luwero district in Central Uganda as a passionate volunteer.
“I introduce myself in churches, in schools, in the marketplace. They know me very, very well!”
Recently, a widow contacted her, alarmed that her neighbors had kicked her out of her house and blocked the road leading to it. According to formal Ugandan law, a widow has a right to her deceased husband’s property.
Nabunnya agreed to help the widow. Together, they approached the town council of Wobulenzi, a parish in Luwero, and explained the situation. Elected to the council herself in 2002, Nabunnya has become one of the region’s most respected and influential paralegals. They left with a letter from the town engineer instructing the widow’s neighbors to clear five feet on either side of the road to her house.
“I explained to them that I was trained by the Uganda Land Alliance, and gave them copies of the letter. They all agreed to unblock the road, and it was successful.”
Nabunnya estimates that she has helped over 3,000 women, both through the courts and educational workshops. Her greatest challenge, however, is transportation.
“I am only one paralegal, and it is a very big area. We have five parishes, which includes 28 villages,” she said. “Sometimes a client will call my house and say, ‘I have a problem, can you come?’ So I hire a motorcycle, or go on foot. But often, it is far—very, very far.” A motorcycle of her own would help Nabunnya to reach women facing eviction much faster.
For Odongo, witnessing land empower women in Kenya is what gives her work meaning. Like Nabunnya, she offers paralegal advice on property rights to women in her community, many of whom have been forcibly evicted from their property after losing their husbands to HIV/AIDS. These widows and their children, often illiterate and HIV-positive themselves, face strong stigmatization and poverty. Fighting for their land under Kenyan law can restore not only their home but also their sense of power.
“What motivates me is the ability to inspire women to take charge of their own lives,” Odongo says.
“Hearing a widow say, ‘Since I was born, I have never felt so capable of striving to change my situation’ is so great. It feels good to have women change from apathy to capability.”
But not every woman can take charge of her life by holding onto a home she’s already built or claiming a share of the land her family owns. For some women, taking charge means staking an entirely new claim on land she didn’t know she could afford.
Sushmita Pallam first heard about micro-plots in 2004 at a women’s group meeting in her village of Alaganipadu. That year, RDI had partnered with Indira Kranthi Patham, a network of village self-help organizations like Sushmita’s, to help rural women in Andhra Pradesh purchase land for the first time by negotiating market rates with local sellers.
Although her husband would often drag her out of these meetings, Sushmita was excited by the idea.
“I and other landless women in my village applied collectively for a loan to buy a plot of land,” she recalls. “With the help of our village organization, we negotiated with the sellers and split the land parcels among ourselves.”
On her nine-tenths of an acre, Sushmita grew two crops and purchased two buffalo. She repaid her loan of Rs. 10,000, or $214 USD, in only 10 installments, and has been able to save Rs. 7000 each year since. With her profits, Sushmita sent her children to government schools, rebuilt her small house to accommodate her extended family, and purchased modern appliances, including a cell phone and bicycle.
But, she says, these things pale in comparison to the respect she has earned from her family and neighbors. Now, she is confident in her ability to not only purchase more land, but help others do so as well.
“I draw strength from the land I own!” Sushmita said. “This piece of land has turned the tide. From a life of poverty and social disrespect, my land has earned me and my family a life of dignity and opportunity.”
This confidence, says Giovarelli, is at the heart of empowering women.
“Not only do land rights help women to reduce poverty, HIV/AIDS rates, and domestic violence, but they give women a voice and a stake in their community. When women have land, they feel much more powerful.”