Starting in the Teso sub-region of northern Uganda, Alice Emasu is transforming the social architecture of largely patriarchal rural communities by enabling women to be land owners. Alice believes that unlocking the ability of rural farming women to own land is absolutely critical to their economic development.
The New Idea
In 2003 Alice founded the Association for the Re-orientation and Rehabilitation of Teso Women for Development (TERREWODE), to provide practical solutions to women in post-conflict areas. She is removing the barriers toward economic development for Uganda’s small-scale farming women and building a national grassroots movement of women practitioners in all sectors.
Alice has created a multipronged approach that addresses the most critical health issues, agricultural productivity, and legal issues related to land ownership. She has a diverse network of collaborators coming from the health, legal, and agricultural fraternity. Alice encourages women to believe in themselves, and to believe their justice system will work for them. Women then become advocates for other women in the community around land rights violations.
Alice is also developing a visible body of law at the local level that creates awareness in the rural communities where she works; that women have the right to own land. To accomplish this, Alice works at the district level with women’s groups and local leaders to draft bylaws that protect women’s right to own land. She is also creating a grassroots framework of activists including women, local leaders, and retired civil servants to actively facilitate the enforcement of these laws on behalf of poor and vulnerable women in their communities.
To expand her work, Alice has built a national organization that is connected to national and regional networks of human rights organizations, media practitioners, and law enforcement bodies. This enables her to spread the district level draft bylaws and the message about the rights of poor and rural small-scale farming women across a broader audience.
Alice believes that the reason why women in rural areas are among the poorest of the poor is because they cannot engage in farming as a sustainable livelihood. She also sees the reproductive health problems women face as a direct result of their high level of poverty; inextricably linked to the fact that the women do not own the land they farm on. These three problems are really the same problem and require an intervention that addresses them all while identifying the most critical piece: land ownership.
Government programs and many citizen organizations have tried to promote agricultural productivity in rural areas by giving out improved seeds to farmers. Financial institutions are extending credit to farmers and input dealers are figuring out ways of getting inputs down to farmers at a good price. In addition, many interventions are focused on creating more value for farmers and passing this value to them through elaborate value chain models. The reality on the ground is that very few women actually benefit from this increased value for the simple reason that they don’t own the land they farm on and men stand to benefit most from these opportunities. Alice sees the need for a women-focused approach that addresses the unique challenges that women farmers face in order to set them on the path to economic development.
Alice chose to roll out her citizen-based model in Teso sub-region because it is where she grew up and where she experienced firsthand the iniquities faced by women due to suppressive cultural practices. This area also represents where some of the most vulnerable women in Uganda are found, having been victims of not only a patriarchal culture but also over twenty years of civil unrest. Alice has an intimate understanding of the realities as well as the power dynamics of the area.
Land is a crucial source of livelihood for Ugandans, especially for those who live in rural areas, as agriculture is the main source of livelihood. Women however, have historically been more susceptible to land grabbing by people from within and without their families. The Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, 1995, was therefore revised to provide for the emancipation of women through the introduction of Section 38A which stipulates that the consent of one’s spouse must be obtained before the other spouse can make any transaction with family land, including selling, pledging, mortgaging, exchanging, or transferring it. Since the introduction of the spousal consent law, women in urban centers have exercised their right to be equal decision makers in the way their co-owned land is used. The widespread awareness of this law within urban centers and the ease of access to law enforcement agencies makes it easier for women in urban areas to fend off abusive husbands and opportunistic relatives who pose a threat to their land ownership status.
In the rural areas however, the situation isn’t as straightforward. Not only are women in these areas often illiterate and poor—making access to legal services near to impossible—they also have to conform to traditional governance structures that are patriarchal in nature. Disempowering cultural practices dictate that women cannot own land and that upon the death of their husbands, they are inherited by their in-laws along with their husbands’ assets. Because the land the women farm does not belong to them, neither does the produce or the revenue they generate from their farming activities. So, although there is no law barring women from owning land, these prejudiced cultural practices take precedence and are reinforced even further in post-conflict areas.
Alice identifies the most passionate retired civil servants from the public sector and turns them into active agents of change at the grassroots level. The strength of this group lies in the fact that they have lived in urban areas and have seen women exercise their right to own land and be treated as equals. This group also enjoys enormous respect in their home villages, and has the ability to influence decisions and even traditions. Alice is putting these retired senior citizens in active roles as adjudicators of local courts and has—starting with three districts—mobilized local leaders and women’s groups to create district level bylaws for use by the adjudication courts to allow women, including the adjudicators’ daughters and granddaughters, to own land.
Using district bylaws the elders can intervene on a case by case basis to allow women to own land and begin their journey toward economic prosperity. For example, a woman lost her husband and was inherited by her in-laws. During the process, everything she owned was taken by her new husband and when she conceived, she was thrown out of the home. Homeless and with no family to turn to for help, she took her case to the adjudication courts and had the elders intervene on her behalf. They negotiated with her in-laws and succeeded in returning her marital home and land back to her. Several years later, this same woman has a thriving dairy farm and is able to support her children and those of her brothers and sisters, protecting them from going through the same ordeal. She is also actively involved in one of Alice’s groups and is passionate about helping other women overcome similar challenges.
Alice has also made it a condition for the women in her groups to identify and recruit other women who have suffered from fistula as a precondition to benefitting from the program. In so doing, she has kept her growth strategy focused on reaching more and more of the most vulnerable women in fragile post-conflict areas. Fistula is a highly stigmatized reproductive health condition that results from child sex slavery, defilement, and the pregnancy of premature girls. Women who suffer from this condition are often rejected by their communities and live their lives as outcasts. Alice is spreading her work through national networks and grassroots women’s groups, first to post-conflict areas as the women in such areas are vulnerable to land rights violations. For example, Alice is engaging with local communities in Kasese, a district in southwestern Uganda, a region that like the Teso sub-region was ravaged with civil war and conflict for many years and suffers from the same challenges.
Key to Alice’s approach is her use of the media to build a nationwide organization of change agents. She has engaged journalists who are writing about the problem and sensitizing the wider community from which she is recruiting members of her organization including retired civil servants, advocates, law enforcement offices, and women’s groups. The national level organization that she is building is not just an awareness push but she is also creating within it a system for accountability of duty bearers at the grassroots level. Alice is building an accountability system whereby her organization transmits information from the work of the women’s groups and other stakeholders mobilized through her network to other women, policymakers, and opinion leaders across the region. In doing so, she is feeding decision makers and custodians of resources related to the area of rural development with a real-time catalogue of what is happening on the ground. By actively engaging a broad spectrum of stakeholders and providing them with real-time and actionable information, Alice is giving everyone in her network the tools and capacity to make a difference in the lives of poor farming women in rural Uganda.
Alice was born in the Teso sub-region of northern Uganda to a village chief. What was supposed to be a privileged life turned upside down when her father passed on when Alice was only three months old. As tradition in that part of the world dictated, her mother was inherited by her in-laws and Alice watched her suffer discrimination and stigma associated with widowed women. To survive, they had to go from door to door begging for food and Alice’s mother often had to walk many kilometers to find work—mostly plowing other people’s shambas in exchange for food for her children. What made it worse is that, at the time, the Teso sub-region was rife with civil conflict. Men were targeted by the rebel groups that terrorized the area and because of this, in trying to protect their men, the women did all the work outside the house including cultivation and any form of business. The situation was therefore not unique to Alice’s mum. She saw families marry off their young daughters in exchange for food. Alice saw many young girls become pregnant and die due to childbirth-related complications. She lost six of her closest friends under similar circumstances.
Having grown up amidst such wretched conditions through most of her childhood, Alice felt compelled to do something about it. At only 16, Alice started writing newspaper articles for New Vision, Uganda’s leading newspaper—to create awareness on a national scale about the plight of the people and particularly the women of the Teso sub-region. She was eventually hired by the newspaper before completing her university education and became the last journalist hired by the paper without a degree. While at New Vision, Alice recalls that the paper did not tolerate news stories focused on women. She remembers her first article being torn in her face, as it didn’t represent what the newspaper stood for. Alice convinced them to publish the story and eventually advocated for the introduction of the paper’s first women’s rights centered pull out called Women’s Voice. This prompted the second leading newspaper, The Daily Monitor, to introduce their own version of the same pull out which they called Full Woman. Over ten years at New Vision, Alice became one of the most respected female journalists in Uganda; known for her passion for issues related to women’s rights.
Alice recognizes that land ownership by men and not women has been engraved in African cultural tradition for generations. She also recognizes that the power dynamic in such areas pronounces men as superior to women. Alice therefore had to find a way to tilt a complex and patriarchal governance structure to recognize women as equal shareholders of community assets in a way that doesn’t threaten men, protective of their social status, or the women who are shy about provoking them.