Access to Land, Securing a Livelihood and Gender Role Renegotiation: A Case Study of Widows in Northern Uganda[1]


Megan Smith Göttsches

School of Language, Culture and World Affairs, College of Charleston, USA




Over two decades of violent conflict has taken its toll on northern Uganda. As the people of the region attempt to resettle in this post-conflict landscape, changes in attitude and activities have become apparent. Women who lost their husbands during the conflict returned home to find a new host of problems such as loss of land and social support which they must overcome in order to generate livelihoods and pursue a life which they deem respectable.

This paper focuses on a group of widows situated in villages around a disbanded internal displacement camp in northern Uganda and how their actions and attitudes towards their subsuming traditionally male roles while intensifying their own gender’s roles has been helpful in their ability to participate in livelihood activities. The women at the heart of this study were married prior to the conflict’s escalation and lost their husbands during the conflict and internal displacement period (1986-2006). Through loosely applying the capability approach and theoretical concepts surrounding it, a clearer picture is created explaining how the relationship between the actions and choices of these women helps them achieve a form of well-being which they deem relevant and important. According to Doss et al. (2012: 598), “land is the most important asset in rural Uganda. Land rights and ownership are embedded deeply in social norms and customary law, including those related to marriage and inheritance”. Consequentially, the systems which dictate land rights and ownership fell under immense pressure as the conflict ruptured both cultural practices and family units. This puts women, along with children, the disabled and the elderly at risk as they find themselves in vulnerable and unsecure positions within society. For women, this is especially precarious as “women’s land rights’ vulnerability under custom is exacerbated by the inherent fact of women’s transience: women move from their maiden families to their marital homes (or cohabiting homes) and sometimes back again to their maiden homes. … Should her husband or in-laws become unsupportive, she will lack the protection she needs to claim her property rights” (Adoko et al. 2011: 3). Widows tend to find themselves in this position when social systems become challenged in the aftermath of conflict, and understanding the dynamics of women and land access in a post conflict setting is crucial not only to interpreting potential role renegotiation and livelihood activities which lead to perceived successes, it is also pertinent for the understanding of the land and livelihood insecurities of the region on a larger scale.

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[1] This paper is based on the forthcoming publication: Göttsches, Megan (2014): Livelihood Access and Gender Role Renegotiation. A Case Study of Widows in Northern Uganda. Culture and Environment in Africa Series, Issue 4: The University of Cologne, MA Culture and Environment in Africa Programme.