Pallisa District in Eastern Uganda is one of the most patriarchal in the country.
Huts surrounding one main house are a common sight in almost every household in Pallisa. They tell a story – a tale of polygamy. The women in Pallisa and surrounding districts also tell their stories - that of injustices committed against them in the name of culture. With the work of Actionaid, its partners, and the Women Won't Wait Centre, justice is slowly making way with change coming to one woman at a time.
On a sunny Thursday afternoon, Samalie Naizuba, 58, sits on a reed mat under a large grass thatched shed. She is joined by five other women with whom she shares a homestead and a husband. The wives’ grass thatched mud-huts surround their husband’s big brick tin roofed house. This family setting is typical of Pallisa District. Almost every home is made of two to six small houses or huts for the various wives living there that surround a big house or hut that belongs for the husband. Here, polygamy is the norm and a man is expected to be the breadwinner. In practice though, most men spend their days drinking at Kibale trading centre, while the women look after the children, till the land and undertake all the household chores.
On this particular day, Samalie and her co-wives are peeling cassava to be served with beans at sunset, which will consist of the family’s only meal for the day.
The cassava is harvested from an adjacent piece of land that spreads over eight acres. On this land cotton also grows which Samalie hopes to sell so she could pay tuition fees for her daughter who just completed seventh grade.
The land has been Samalie’s major source of livelihood for the past 45 years since she's been married. Such family land is protected under the Land Act passed in 1998 that states that land cannot be sold without the consent of a spouse or children above 18 years. However, complications arise in a polygamous setting because the law is not clear on which wife should give the consent.
While most women wouldn’t know about the Land Act and their right of consent, Samalie does, thanks to Actionaid which operate in the district to sensitise and empower women to fight for their rights.
In June last year Samalie’s husband decided to sell the eight acres of land for two bulls, each valued at Shs 700,000, she was not willing to let her only source of income go. She challenged him, and asked him:
How dare you sell our land without my consent or that of our children.
Because he wouldn’t listen, Samalie sought the intervention of the clan leaders, but she was disappointed when they sided with her husband, pointing out that culturally, the land belonged to him.
The area Local Councils whom Samalie also sought help from, were at first helpful but eventually caved in due to social pressures. It was only when Samalie finally reported the matter to Women Won’t Wait (WWW) Centre that the issue was reconsidered.
Women Won’t Wait Programs (WWW) deal with women’s rights, domestic violence and HIV/AIDS.
In November 2009, after mediation sessions, WWW team were able to convince Samalie’s husband to return the bulls and refrain from selling the land. This inevitably strained Samalie’s relationship with her husband. Today, she is somewhat of an alien in her homestead. While some of her co-wives were initially supportive of her because the land also benefited them, others berated her for daring to challenge the head of the family.
Following the ordeal, Samalie was among the more than 400 women picked to attend the launch of the Women Land Movement conference at Speke Resort Munyonyo last October. The mood was celebratory as participants highlighted the milestones achieved by the women's land rights movement in Uganda. Unlike a 1980's World Bank report, which states that only 7% of women own land yet they till over 80% of it, today's percentage has more than doubled to 18%. The number of women who co-own land with their spouses has also increased since then.
Samalie says the conference taught her a lot about her land rights.
However, even if she now has access to her land, she admits that she is not at peace. Once, her husband threatened to beat her up, accusing her of receiving lots of money from the Women’s Land Movement. She was only saved by her stepson’s intervention. Yet, giving up her land rights is not an option; The land is her life.
“What about my children's future?” she asks.
“The land is my children's only chance. I would not stay there if it wasn’t for them.”