Women and Naked Protests in Uganda: Breathing new life into feminist discourse that women do not own land
Theresa Auma Eilu*
Blog Article submitted to SMAIAS to be posted on Agrarian South Network (ASN)
24 July 2019
As a form of resistance to the recent emergence of large-scale land acquisition in Uganda, women have been at the forefront of violent confrontations with state authorities and investors. In a context where the dominant feminist discourse declared that patriarchal customary norms hinders women from owning and having rights over land, it has become a surprise that women are leading all forms of resistance to large-scale land alienation, instead of men. One of the major forms of women’s resistance has been through their engagement in naked protests in different parts of the country. The most famous women naked protest was cited in Amuru district in northern Uganda when women led their communities is resisting government acquisition of about 40,000 hectares of land for Madhvani sugar plantation in 2015. Another incidence of women naked protests was in 2012 when women of Lakang sub-county in Amuru district undressed before the district resident commissioner who had led a delegation to take their land for a sugar cane plantation. In 2014, a group of women in Soroti district in eastern Uganda also staged a naked protest against government effort to give away their land for the expansion of Soroti University. In 2015, women in Bukedea district in eastern Uganda further engaged in a naked protest to resist a Chinese investor grabbing their land. In 2015 women from Apaa sub-county in Amuru district also staged a naked protest to stop further evictions (after 6,000 people were evicted in 2012) to allow government allocate their land to a South African investor to establish wildlife hunting grounds. The contestation exhibited in these naked contests is purely of agrarian nature, one in which women who engage in smallholder agriculture on customary land are contesting the advance of agrarian capital through the expansion of large-scale agricultural (foreign) investments. It is a manifestation of the tensions that emerge as a result of an attempt to force a capitalist shift towards large-scale agriculture, to the disadvantage of the rural smallholder farmers in different parts of the global south.
The dominant feminist discourse that customary law and customary practices in Uganda do not allow women to own land; that patriarchy stood on the way for women’s access to and control of land reached a climax in Uganda during the writing of the 1998 Land Act. During this period, the women’s movement operating in the context of civil society organizations (CSOs) towed the individual rights-based approach and called for the law to give equal rights over land between husbands and wives, in what famously became known as the Co-Ownership campaign. During this campaign, the women’s movement deployed statistics showing that although women do 70-80% of agricultural food production, only 16% of these women own land, and that women owned only 7% of the land titled in Uganda. Because of its unpopularity within the Ugandan (patriarchal) society and among policy makers, the co-ownership clauses were rejected and never found its way into the 1998 Land Act, or any subsequent land laws in Uganda to-date. Only one clause on spousal consent during sale of family land was included in the 1998 Land Act, but this clause has not been supported by state enforcement to ensure that women’s consent is secured before family land is sold.
Contemporary studies conducted in the areas where women engaged in naked protests show that resistance to large-scale land acquisition involving investors and state agents has been left to women because when faced with the Investor-State power, men exhibit a sense of powerlessness while women stage resistance because they argue that as mothers, their duty is to feed their children and it is from land that they draw subsistence. A section of contemporary feminist writers in Uganda have begun to shift the nature of the debate and breathing new life into the former feminist discourse within the women’s movement that customs do not allow women to own land. They argue that women have been able to sustain naked protests in resistance to large-scale land alienation due to the fact that customary law guarantees the land rights of women (equally with men), but the difference is that these rights are not accorded on individual terms as envisioned by the women’s movement during the 1998 Co-ownership campaign, but rather through collective rights within families and clans.
Feminist writers are now framing new questions that, if women who are declared by the dominant feminist discourse not to own land are currently at the forefront of resisting expansion of large-scale land alienation in Uganda, what is their stake over this land? Feminist scholars are asking how the new knowledge that customary land tenure actually caters for women’s land rights should sit with the former advocacy stance of the women’s movement – alongside feminist scholars – that women do not own land. The emerging feminist discourse is that the women’s movement can not continue to present simplistic propositions about co-ownership of land between husbands and wives (in the individual sense) because this is not applicable to land relations within the customary system. Feminist scholars in Uganda are re-visiting their earlier analysis of patriarchy by noting that patriarchy is not as rigid and disempowering to women as previously presented, but rather that it is flexible and has room to cater for women’s interests.
* The Author is a PhD Fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), Makerere University