In a System of Polygamy and Patriarchy, Ugandan Women Find Power in Lending Practices That Require Their Approval

In rural Uganda, where polygamy is a common practice, a married woman is traditionally seen as a property resident rather than a property co-owner. But the 8,000 Savings and Credit Cooperative Societies (SACCOs) in Uganda are giving women a voice. Men cannot put up land as loan collateral without consulting their spouse, requiring loan requests to be co-signed by wives.

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In a System of Polygamy and Patriarchy, Ugandan Women Find Power in Lending Practices That Require Their Approval

Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda

Theresa Tumwebaze and James Ngahwire work in their garden, the piece of land that they want to use as collateral to obtain a loan from their local savings and credit cooperative, known as a SACCO. The rules of the SACCO require that the wife approves all loans her husband applies for.

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KAMPALA, UGANDA — Theresa Tumwebaze, 43, looks out at the sun that has risen from the east and curses herself for dawdling in completing her household chores. She knows that others are already out tilling away in their fields. She sighs and grabs her hoe, setting out to her garden with her husband.

“I have this piece [of land] and two more,” she says. “That is a summary of all my earthly investments.”

Her husband, James Ngahwire, grins and in a light tone mumbles: “Hmmm, who says those pieces of land are yours?”

Between them, Tumwebaze and Ngahwire have six children, including two pairs of twin boys. He has other children from his other wives, too.

“How else can I and our children live if those pieces of land are grabbed from us?” she asks, referencing the fact that men are the predominant land owners in Uganda.

Tumwebaze became Ngahwire’s wife after a formal ceremony where her parents consented to the union, a common practice here.

Ngahwire has been through the same ceremony with two other women, who are also his legal wives. Polygamy is both legal and common in Uganda.

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Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda

Theresa Tumwebaze and James Ngahwire visit their local SACCO in hopes of getting a loan to help with school fees for their two oldest children.

While working the garden, the couple discusses the fast-approaching school year. They need money for school fees for their two older children. The twins are enrolled in Uganda’s free primary school programs, but the two oldest children, who are now in post-secondary school, no longer have access to the country’s free education.

With the deadline fast approaching, the couple has decided to walk to the Kihanga Mparo Cooperative Savings and Credit Society, known as a SACCO. Despite the polygamy and the patriarchy, Tumwebaze says it is one place where she has some power.

“They won’t allow me to withdraw the money if I don’t go with her,” Ngahwire says, gesturing to his wife. “They think I will marry another woman or squander it over beer and women.”

Across Uganda, there are more than 8,000 SACCOs that make small loans to community members for school fees, health care or building projects. But unlike most community-lending programs, here loan officials won’t pay out a loan to a man without the consent of his wife.

SACCOs exist to help people living in rural Uganda access finances, says Leonard Kazindura, a senior co-operative officer in the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Cooperatives.

When in need of a loan, members of the local SACCO society must fill out an application that details the request and the land being put up as collateral. Once a photo and a photocopy of the wife’s national identity card is attached to the form, they wait for an endorsement from the local council chairman. If received, loan officials inspect the land. But an application is not considered complete unless signed by the applying man’s wife, Kazindura says. The whole process takes about three weeks.

The land put up for collateral must only be that shared by the applying couple. So in Ngahwire’s case, he might visit the SACCO with each of his wives, but can only put up the land shared by that couple as collateral. He has each of his wives registered under different accounts at the SACCO.

In Uganda, 50 percent of people are married by the time they are 18, according to a 2012 UNICEF report. The majority of people in rural Uganda are married.

Women can only receive money directly from the SACCOs if they have salary loans from commercial banks, which can be used as collateral. But that’s rare in rural areas, where most women do not have formal occupations or sole bank accounts.

In the Kihanga Village SACCO, Ngahwire is seeking a small loan to pay the school fees for the two oldest children he shares with his third wife. That, says Gideon Birungi, the general manager, is just what the organization exists to provide.

Since 2005, they have been providing loans in this village, which lies some 350 kilometers (220 miles) from Kampala, Uganda’s capital.

Here loan officials won’t pay out a loan to a man without the consent of his wife.

“The rural folk borrow money according to their needs and capability to pay back,” Birungi says, adding that the SACCO requires both the husband and the wife to agree on the loan amount to ensure the likelihood of repayment.

“We cannot advise them on how to spend the money but we are now sure that they agreed on how to spend it,” says Aloysius Atuheire, a loan officer at the SACCO. “It is also our security because then in case of defaulting, both the man and woman will be aware of what it takes to recover our loan. But defaulting rarely happens.”

He says the woman’s role in agreeing to the loan is one of the main reasons they experience a low default rate.

“This [makes] the woman feel her presence in land ownership,” Atuheire says, adding they will work to protect their land if they feel a loan is being misused.

From a women’s rights perspective, requiring the approval of the wife is a step in the right direction, says Regina Bafaki, executive director of Action for Development, or ACFODE, a women’s rights organization in Uganda.

She says women here have always been denied decision-making power as they are widely seen to be property residents, not property owners.

The man still remains the owner of the land, but consultation gives the woman value.

“The man still remains the owner of the land, but consultation gives the woman value,” she says. “Involving the woman makes for better planning because then the loan will be used to develop a home not to waste on booze, women and show-off luxuries.”

But others say signing off on small community loans is not enough, especially because there is little evidence that women ever say no to a loan request.

“For a woman in the rural area, whose life spins around the man, she can only agree to sign the loan application because if she does not, then her husband will send her packing and she won’t cope elsewhere,” says Miria Matembe, a founding member of the Center for Women in Governance, an organization that works to promote women’s representation in Parliament.

The practice is also not popular among some men.

John Kyeraza says for most men, property is passed down from father to son.

“If it is land that we bought together, that would be okay, but land which my father gave me, this should entirely be in my powers to do what I want without her interrupting,” Kyeraza says, adding he thinks the SACCO practice should be revisited.