Gender inequality and the rush for land: a perfect storm for women’s rights in Uganda

Chiara Capraro and Sostine Namanya | Nov 27, 2017
Esther stood in front of the Sugar Factory that took her land
A blog on #JusticeforWomen during 16 Days of Activism by Chiara Capraro, Policy and Advocacy Manager, Womankind Worldwide and Sostine Namanya, Gender and Food Security Officer, from Womankind partner in Uganda, National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE).

Around the world women represent 70-80% of small holder farmers. They work in fields and gardens to put food on the table but they are discriminated against when it comes to owning land and making decisions on how to use it. Uganda is no exception. Despite women representing 76% of those working in agriculture and the constitution guaranteeing women equal right to property, it is estimated than only between 7% and 20% of women own land.

Rural women in Uganda face additional challenges. With the government liberalising foreign investment into the country and the discovery of commercially viable oil reserves between 2004 and 2006, the rush for land is rife. The situation will be exacerbated if the government’s proposed amendment to article 26 of the Land Act goes through, allowing compulsory acquisition of land before compensation is agreed. Womankind’s partners NAPE and NAWAD have been documenting the impact of corporate activity on women’s rights in the districts of Buliisa and Hoima in the North West of the country. NAPE brought together women displaced from their land by extractive industries and trained them in research methods to document the impacts of large scale land deals on their lives and to formulate demands for change.

Loss of land, violence, environmental pollution

The impact of extractive industries on women’s lives is devastating but often remains invisible because gender inequality is ‘normalised’ in everyday life. NAPE’s research conducted in 2015 found that discussion on consent for land acquisitions and relative compensation bypassed women due to their lack of land tenure papers.

Corporate activity also caused a deterioration in food security: the influx of workers to build oil related infrastructure led to overfishing in Lake Albert, raising prices to unaffordable levels for local women.

Gender relations in families changed with the arrival of many single male workers and sex workers on the project sites. Women reported facing violence and harassment from workers: for example, in the Kigyayo sub-county women reported being beaten by sugarcane plantation workers when using paths near the plantation on their way to look for food, firewood and water. Men having unprotected sex led to increased reports of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.

The closures of roads, markets, churches and even schools to make way for the development of oil-related infrastructure disrupted the community’s social life with gendered consequences. For example, many parents decided to take their daughters out of school because of increased distance to travel to access primary school and fear of harassment and violence.

Women Human Rights Defenders are at the forefront to protect land and lives

The situation in Uganda is unfortunately not unique. Despite international frameworks governing business activity and protecting women’s rights, victims of human rights abuses perpetrated by corporations face huge challenges in getting justice.

One of the main reasons is the enormous power imbalance between major corporations and rural and indigenous women: research shows that 63% of the top 175 global economic entities are transnational corporations, not countries. In 2011, the revenues of the three largest corporations, Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil and Wal-Mart were higher than the gross domestic product of 55 % of nation states.

Corporate impunity when it comes to rights violations is rife and global trends are worrying. The NGO Global Witness has been tracking attacks against defenders of the environment: 200 have been killed in 2016, almost 4 every week and 96 have already been killed in 2017 up to July. Some, like Berta Cáceres from Honduras, have made international headlines; many others were killed in silence.

Human rights defenders are increasingly subject to judicial harassment and other forms of intimidation. Women human rights defenders face additional threats because of their role challenging corporate and state power as well as gender stereotypes on the roles of women in society. The intimidation and violence they face is often sexualised. They face stigma from their own communities and even families, they lose their jobs and security.

The challenges that women human rights defenders face have been widely documented by civil society and UN experts but despite a resolution to protect them adopted by the United Nations their lives continue to be at risk. Our partners tells us that amplifying their voices and struggles is a powerful way of showing they are not alone.

Stand with brave women working for change

Womankind stands in solidarity with women in Uganda who are struggling for their right to a dignified life free of violence. We are working with NAPE (National Association of Professional Environmentalists) and NAWAD (National Association of Women’s Action in Development) on further research to document the experiences of women affected by corporate activity and their strategies to come together as a movement to resist and fight back.

We are accompanying Lucy Mbuubi Nyakake, a human rights defender from the oil affected Butimba community to speak about her experience at the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva, the global annual gathering of governments, civil society and business to discuss progress and challenges in the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Together with the CORE Coalition, a coalition of civil society organisations working on corporate accountability, we have prepared a briefing with recommendations for governments and companies to identify, prevent and remedy the gender specific risks that land intensive corporate activity poses for women.

We are also a member of the Treaty Alliance, a coalition of civil society and feminist groups supporting a new legally binding, stronger treaty to regulate the activities of businesses and secure accountability for human rights violations.

Women human rights defenders like Lucy face enormous risks and hardships to protect their right to a dignified life. We ask you to stand with them.

Follow Womankind at the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights from 27th to 29th November on Twitter @woman_kind. We will be tweeting #JusticeforWomen #UNForumBHR / #bizhumanrights.

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