Isaac was 7 years old when his father died from AIDS. He remembers sitting, quietly, with his six brothers and sisters. His father’s body was there, growing cold, awaiting a proper African burial.
But when Isaac’s relatives showed up, they weren’t there to plan a peaceful funeral.
“The day my father died, when his body was still in the house, his family members came and called my mother a dog and told her to leave.”
Isaac’s voice drops to a whisper.
“I was afraid because they were burning jerricans and they had sticks. They were causing a ruckus outside. I remember being inside the bedroom. My mom was sitting next to my father’s body.”
What is going on?
If you are Isaac’s mother, Harriet, you are not entirely shocked by what is going on. Most women in East Africa fear this exact scene.
After your husband dies, his family will decide who gets what. Traditionally, the men will divide up the property—which includes the farm where you grow your food, the house you probably built with your own hands, and your children.
In Harriet’s case, her father-in-law decided that a distant cousin would inherit the land. The children would be raised by relatives. And Harriet would be discarded.
This is called property grabbing, and this is normal.
In a study by International Justice Mission, nearly one of three widows surveyed was victimized by property grabbing. Nearly 20% of these victims reported that attempts were made on their lives.
The fears of a young widow
Harriet was married at 16. She and her husband made bricks out of mud and built a home for their family. They planted corn and cassava and sweet potatoes in a garden out back.
The couple wanted to give their children a good life. Harriet had not been able to finish school, but they were committed to giving their children every opportunity to succeed in school.
Then, when Harriet was in her early 30s, she lost her husband to illness caused by AIDS.
Harriet’s immediate grief was overwhelmed by fear. The night that her son Isaac describes above was just the beginning of a long and lonely battle to keep her children together in the home she had built.
“I had two fears. One was that they were going to kill me and I would leave my children motherless. And the second fear was that if I leave, how was I going to take my children to school?”
At first some of Harriet’s relatives were on her side. After all, Harriet and her husband had been married seventeen years. They had built the house together. Harriet took the case to her local village leaders. They too sided with her, until the bribes began. So Harriet went to the police:
“The police told me it was a family problem and that I should resolve it with the family. That if the police got involved they were going to disturb the family. They said the children belonged to my in-laws.”
The devastating impact
Harriet’s father-in-law lived on the same dusty road. He forbade Harriet from using the land and visited often to shout at her and threaten violence.
“We weren’t allowed to use the land, and so I had to get creative ways of keeping [my children] in school. I would go and beg the headmaster to let them stay. But then after awhile he would ask them to leave.”
A neighbor let Harriet grow some crops on a corner of her land, but it was never quite enough. Harriet’s tone is heartbreakingly matter-of-fact as she recalls:
“You would have just a little for everyone, and the kids are hungry and crying, and you would just drink water, you know, to feel full. I would feel very stressed. You know I’m HIV positive, and I need to eat. And my son also, he needs to eat. The other children are also hungry, it would just cause me a lot of stress.”
There were weeks and months when Harriet couldn’t afford the few shillings she and Isaac needed to get to the health clinic for their free medicine.
Isaac recalls another night from those years:
“We were sleeping and then we heard loud voices. They were insulting my mother. They were calling her a prostitute. They called her a dog. One of them went to the door and shook it, and one of them threw a big rock through there.”
He points to the open ventilation window over the front door. Bricks started to crumble—part of the wall tumbled on top of Isaac and his siblings sleeping on old mattresses on the floor. Isaac’s relatives were ruthless. It seemed they would stop at nothing.
“I thought they were going to kill us.”
In a quiet voice that mirrors both his mother’s fear and her undeniable strength, he explained how his relatives had all the power back then:
“They had had us convinced that they were untouchable. That nobody could touch them, nobody could arrest them. If you come against them, you’re the one instead who would get crushed.”
IJM Attorney Geraldine Kabami is standing up for the family. She says, “The law will stop you if you commit criminal acts against vulnerable widows and orphans.”
It was Isaac’s older sister who found help for the family. She learned about a seminar at a local church on legal rights and went with a neighbor. A few lawyers from International Justice Mission (IJM) were hosting the workshop, and suddenly the family was no longer fighting alone.
IJM works with local authorities in Uganda to protect women like Harriet from violence. An IJM social worker visited Harriet at her home, creating a long-term care plan while also providing immediate food and school fees. An IJM lawyer got to work on the case, gathering evidence that would ultimately prove Harriet’s rightful ownership of the property.
Harriet had never been inside a courthouse before and said she was scared.
“I thought to myself, this is the time for me to speak the truth, and the whole truth.”
Harriet’s relatives admitted guilt in court that day.
IJM has continued helping Harriet and her family stand strong on their own. The family lives in a new home that IJM donors built for them, and Harriet farms the land that is rightfully hers. Her relatives still live nearby, but the threats have ceased.
Isaac started high school this year. He loves working on his bicycle, and math is his favorite subject because he’s best at it.
Harriet smiles broadly and speaks quickly as she tells about the dreams she has for each child. One should become a pilot and see the world, another a soccer coach, another a police woman.
She disappears into her neatly-kept home and comes back with photos of her oldest daughter, the one who attended the legal rights workshop. Her name is Sarah, and she is away at nursing school. In the photos she is smiling with Harriet’s same smile, accepting an award from the headmaster.
The reality is that life is still not easy for Harriet and her children. Harriet and Isaac are living with HIV, and Harriet is raising seven children as a single mother. But Harriet is no longer living in fear, and her dreams for her children are becoming realities.
Please consider helping widows like Harriet. You can make a one time gift or sign up to be a freedom partner. Donate to International Justice Mission here. You can also get involved in a variety of other way.