Women’s Movements, Customary Law, and Land Rights in Africa: The Case of Uganda

by Aili Mari Tripp


Much of the literature on women and land tenure in Africa has viewed the introduction of land titling, registration, and the privatization of land under colonialism and after independence as a setback for women, leaving women in a state of even greater insecurity with poorer prospects for accessing land, and hence, obtaining a livelihood. The demise of the authority of clans and local elders has made women’s land rights even more precarious. In this context women’s movements in Africa have adopted a rights-based approach that challenges customary land and other practices. In doing so they have contradicted a new consensus among policymakers around the view that sees land tenure policy as building on customary systems and giving them legal recognition. This paper attempts to account for this apparent contradiction in the case of Uganda, which has gone further than most African countries in devolving land administration to the local level, while at the same time giving rise to one of the most active women’s movements challenging customary land tenure practices. If women were benefiting from customary land tenure arrangements, as the development practitioners argue, one would think the preservation of customary rights or modifications in the customary systems would have been desirable goals of the movement. This paper explores this apparent divergence of approaches to women’s land rights.

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Aili Tripp is a professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison associate dean of International Studies. She is the author of several books and numerous articles, including: Changing the Rules: The Politics of Liberalization and the Urban Informal Economy in Tanzania (1997) and Women & Politics in Uganda (2000), which won the 2001 Victoria Schuck Award of the American Political Science Association for the best book published on women and politics. Currently, she is co-authoring a book on the political impact of women’s movements in Africa.