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Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), by Caroline Ayugi* - February 26, 2009.
Kitgum (Uganda) - Maureen Aceng, 15, a resident of the Mucwini internal refugee camp 14 kilometres north of Kitgum, longs to be back at her home village.
Instead, she lives in a collapsing mud and thatch hut surrounded by demolished and overgrown mud compounds, unsure of her future.
Aceng is among thousands of women who have been left landless in northern Uganda, as more than 1.5 million former refugees now flock to their villages to reestablish their homes, fields and way of life. Many women like her remain in the largely dismantled camps, having nowhere to go because as orphans, widows and divorcees they tend to lose out in family disputes over land and are too poor to seek legal redress.
Aceng lost her father in 2002 when he was burned to death in a hut by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, during one of the most vicious periods of the conflict with the Ugandan army that wracked northern Uganda from 1986 to 2006.
The LRA left northern Uganda in 2006 for the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, where it is currently being pursued by the Ugandan army. LRA leader Joseph Kony and other top commanders are wanted by the International Criminal Court, ICC, for war crime and crimes against humanity. Then just two years ago, Aceng’s mother died from an illness.
Like many others her age, Aceng was born and raised in a refugee camp and only has a vague awareness of her village. When her mother fell ill and died, she said, her only uncle was entrusted to take care of her and her 10-year-old brother. But her uncle never provided any care, she explained.
"When I asked my uncle when we [were] going back home, he asked me '[to] whose land?’” Aceng said.
She later learned that her uncle had sold her family’s land after her mother died. Aceng said her former neighbours in the refugee camp moved to their home village a year ago, leaving her to feed herself and her brother.
"We get so helpless sometimes,” she told IWPR. “We take each day at a time. The thought of the next day just scares me. If I fail to get what [I need] to eat today, what will I eat tomorrow?"
Rose Lawila, a 65-year-old widow and mother of five, said she has been embroiled in a land dispute with her nephews. A resident of Okidi village near Kitgum, Lawila said her husband died twenty years ago, and her brother gave her a piece of land. But since her brother's death two years ago, his children have been threatening her, she said, telling her to leave the land and claiming that it belongs to their late father.
"Although the matter [has] reached the local authorities, they continued vandalising my property and started building their house on the land," she said of her nieces and nephews. "I was advised to take the matter to higher legal authorities, but where do I get such huge sums of money to hire a lawyer?”
In Uganda, an estimated 50 per cent of women live in poverty, which means they cannot afford to seek legal solutions to property disputes. In 1988, the Uganda government granted judicial authority to local council courts to provide inexpensive, but expedient and culturally acceptable judicial solutions to land disputes. But some women advocates argue that the local councils have failed to protect the property rights of women and instead favour men.
Hellen Achan, the coordinator for Sexual and Gender Based Violence, SGBV, in Kitgum said local court arbiters tend to use “rule of persons” instead of the “rule of law” to make decisions, meaning that their rulings are often based on their personal preferences and prejudices, not the law.
The chairman of the Kitgum town council court, Daramoi Luwum, told IWPR that women should never be treated with leniency in land disputes, since they are often eligible to own land both at their parents' and their in-laws' homes.
"A woman who is denied access to land by her in-laws shouldn't be pitied because they always have alternatives at their parent's homes," Daramoi said.
According to government statistics, however, only eight per cent of land in Uganda is owned by women, yet more than 80 per cent are engaged in agriculture, the back bone of the economy. Although Uganda has no laws barring women from owning land, they have few property rights in reality because customary practice gives land to males. Despite the 1995 constitution that guarantees gender equality and the appointment of women to leadership positions, women’s rights have made little progress.
*Caroline Ayugi is an IWPR-trained reporter.