The United Nations, stating that “abuse of widows and their children constitutes one of the most serious violations of human rights and obstacles to development today,” designated June 23 as International Widows Day.
The U.N. has done more than simply call attention to the plight of widows globally; significantly, the 2030 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals include targets for women’s development – especially their right to inherit, own and cultivate land.
For widows and orphans, there is nothing more crucial to survival than staying on their land. It is now incumbent on national governments, donor nations, and international development institutions to enact and fund policies and programs to assure it.
A microcosm of widows’ plight in the developing world can be seen in Mukono district, Uganda.
A study by International Justice Mission (IJM) of 1,806 Mukono widows revealed that a stunning 30 percent had been victims of “property grabbing.”
Property grabbing is a common phrase in Uganda; it describes crimes meant to drive vulnerable people from their rightful property through physical force, forgery, fraud, threats, intimidation, or property destruction.
Because their lives depend on it, widows cling to their property and homes even in the face of escalating threats and attacks from perpetrators.
In the IJM study, over 18 percent of the widows whose land was taken experienced attempts on their lives; 17 percent experienced destruction of her home or crops; 14 percent of the widows or their children experienced physical abuse.
Loss of property has calamitous consequences for a poor widow and her children. In the year following the property grabbing event, 22.4 percent of the victims experienced the death of a dependent, 23.2 percent tested positive for HIV for the first time within one year after victimization, and 43.6 had to rely on other people for food during the first year after the theft.
Consider the case of Harriet. After her husband died, Harriet and her eight children endured years of abuse from relatives who wanted to steal her home and land.
Even before the funeral took place, his relatives demanded that Harriet vacate their home—leaving her children and property to them—but she refused. Relatives then tried to starve them out by stealing or cutting down the crops Harriet grew to feed her family.
Police seemed unable to stop the abuse, and local leaders failed to help. At one point, a few relatives stormed the home late in the night and violently beat on the walls. One of the cousins threatened to kill Harriet.
IJM collaborated with local law enforcement officials and two violent relatives were arrested, tried and found guilty of their crimes.
Ugandan law, in theory, affords widows like Harriet the right to inherit. In practice however, the law is virtually meaningless for many widows. Widows and their communities do not recognize property grabbing as a crime.
Local authorities are reluctant to engage in what is wrongly characterized as a family dispute. And those few widows who attempt to bring their cases to justice find an administrative adjudication system that is hopelessly complex, expensive, and impenetrable. Police, prosecutors, courts, and judges either don’t know the law or are poorly equipped and trained to enforce it.
Despite the towering impediments to justice and protection, widows and orphans’ access to land can be protected, even by very poor justice systems.
Mukono has made enormous strides in protecting widows’ land rights in recent years. There are now 11 “property grabbing desks” at local police stations and 2 model court rooms.
Thousands of police, prosecutors, and judges been trained in the law and local officials are bringing criminal cases against perpetrators with confidence.
Local council leaders are increasingly well informed about widows’ legal rights, and over 1,000 widows in Mukono have been restored to their land by IJM and its government partners.
To make the SDG goals and targets real for widows and orphans, national governments should be tasked with collecting data on access to land and the U.N. development agencies should help them do so.
Country-wide data on percentage of widows that experienced property expropriation (like that referenced previously) will bring national and international attention to the enormity of the problem.
Additional indicators, such as percentage of widows who have secure access to their inheritance and secure tenure on their land will help inform the solution.
Evaluating local justice officials’ knowledge of the laws affording women’s inheritance and their capacity to enforce it will be an essential first step to building capacity within the police and the courts to protecting widows from the crime and deterring their neighbors and family members from committing it.
The fact that the Sustainable Development Goals speak clearly to the rights of women to inheritance, property and agricultural productivity is a great service to widows and orphans. It is a welcome indication that the nations of the world accept that women’s human rights and development are inextricably related.
Uganda, a country with nearly a million widows – 11 percent of women over the age of 15 – is incubating a robust criminal justice approach to those who would deny them their land and their inheritance. The United Nations and the donor nations of the world should take note.
©Holly Burkhalter, IJM’s Senior Adviser for Justice System Transformation.