National Geographic : 2017 Feb
life after loss 97 commiserate, you counsel, you try to enlighten police officers and village elders, you visit com- munity forums to explain that bullying a new widow into giving over her family property is prohibited even when the bullies are her own in- laws. “People were in shock—‘Oh my God, this is actually wrong?’” said a lawyer named Nina Asiimwe, recalling the first public talks she gave after joining other Ugandan professionals in the Kampala office of International Justice Mission (IJM), the organization that employs Angwech. “They thought it was normal. An injustice, but normal. OK’d by society.” Think of these Ugandans as a widows’ defense brigade: attorneys, social workers, and criminal investigators using their nation’s own justice system to undo long-held assumptions about women who have lost their husbands. IJM is a U.S.-based nonprofit that supports legal advoca- cy in other countries for impoverished victims of violent abuse, and in one sense the agenda of its employees in Kampala is modest. They operate a pilot program, within one large, mostly rural dis- trict east of the capital, that provides free lawyers and caseworkers for victims of a crime known throughout eastern and southern Africa as “prop- erty grabbing”—extorting vulnerable people, by verbal threats or physical attacks, into giving up possession of land that is rightfully theirs. For reasons both ancient and modern, wid- owed women are the most frequent victims of property grabbing in this region of the world. More than two-thirds of Uganda’s 39 million people raise at least some of their own food, and holding title to one’s own home and attached land remains a powerful assurance of material security: meals for the children, firewood for cooking, crops to sell at market. Because graves are often placed near the home, the person in charge of the family property also possesses ancestral history, honor, status. And the rapid growth of Uganda’s population, along with the arrival of mortgage banking, are pushing up the value of land. A house and the cropland around it now constitute potential loan collateral for business investments or the accumulation of more land. These are things traditional Ugandan culture does not easily concede to a widow. The con- stitution, rewritten in 1995 and a source of na- tional pride, promises gender equality. Modern statutes explicitly extend inheritance rights to wives and female children. But in practice, especially in the rural areas that make up most of Uganda, it’s still widely assumed that only men should own or inherit land, that widowhood ter- minates a woman’s social legitimacy, and that it’s up to her husband’s family and clan to decide what happens next—who will take the proper- ty, who will take the children, who will have sex with her now. “Plus the stigma,” Asiimwe said. “If you’re a widow, bad luck. You’re cursed. You’re blamed for the death of your spouse. It could be that he had several homes, several wives, that he brought HIV into the house. But when he dies, it’s you. You killed him.” So with widows as their clients, IJM advocates in the villages and courtrooms of Uganda’s Muko- no District have an audacious goal: to broadcast across Mukono, and perhaps throughout Uganda and beyond, the idea that seizing these women’s homes and crops—as well as the assaults, threats, forgeries, and verbal abuse this often entails—is not only wrong but punishable by the courts. Diplomacy is crucial; in village meetings Asiimwe always addresses her elders as “my fathers” and “my mothers.” She tells them she knows widow abuse is typically treated as a family dispute to be worked out among clan leaders or by village councils, whose elected heads command respect. But their efforts are often inadequate, she The Ugandan widow was told that her children belonged to her late husband’s family, that her home and crops were no longer hers, and that she would become her brother-in-law’s third wife.