Today, IJM celebrates two years of securing justice for impoverished widows and orphans in Gulu, Uganda.
IJM Fights a Life-Or-Death Battle in Gulu
In the developing world, access to land and property can be a matter of life and death—it is a source of shelter, food and income. In Uganda, powerful neighbors and relatives often steal this lifeline from widows and orphans—this is property grabbing.
In Gulu, property grabbing is rampant but largely unchecked. Laws exist to ensure a woman’s right to own land, but many officials are unaware of or unwilling to enforce the law, and widows are particularly vulnerable.
As IJM discovered in a recent study, only 6.3% of widows said they would feel confident to pursue criminal action against a person who chased them out of their home.
This is the battle IJM enters into: helping widows and orphans fight for their land, and helping police understand their role in protecting the vulnerable from violence.
Since October 2012, IJM has helped restore 151 widows and orphans to their homes and land in Northern Uganda.
Meet One of The Gulu Lawyers Defending Widows and Orphans
Richard Otto joined IJM as an attorney in 2012 in Uganda’s capital city, and he was quickly selected to help open the new office. Located in Northern Uganda, Gulu is a more rural town known for its vast and fertile land—but also as a place ravaged by years of civil war and violent unrest. Richard says it’s the people who he works with and the meaning behind the work that keeps him going.
This interview has been edited for brevity.
Q&A with an IJM Lawyer:
As in many cities and villages around the world, it’s incredibly difficult for the poor in Gulu—the people who need protection the most—to access the courts, police and protection from law. What are some of the biggest roadblocks for widows and orphans seeking justice?
The biggest challenge is the mindset of both women and men. Society places women in the garden, kitchen and bedroom—anything else is not her role to participate. Women are limited. It is rare to see a woman leave her homestead to report land matters; they don’t believe they have the right to say “I am oppressed.” For men, they think they have the right to make decisions and do all the talking; women are just subjects or property—they paid a bride price for them.
Another challenge is a practical one: Courts and police posts are far away, usually a full day’s commute.
Ignorance also plays a big role. Clan members [customary local leaders] don’t know women have rights to the land, so when a woman takes a matter to local council leaders they don’t believe her or understand what rights she deserves.
Northern Uganda was ravaged by years of civil war and violent conflict. Does property grabbing look different in this context?
Yes, in many ways. When people were sent to live in the internally displaced persons camps, a new culture was developed. People were confined to the camps, but some people looked for nearby land, realizing land could be used to earn money. This pushed people to rush and grab land, especially from vulnerable people.
When the war ended and it was time to return home, people again saw an opportunity to take land from people who couldn’t defend themselves—widows and orphans—and resell it to make a profit.
How do you persevere despite the frustrating setbacks and broken system?
One thing I thrive on is conviction. If I see something and have the conviction I can get it or that what I’m doing is right, then my conviction is stronger than any roadblock. My conviction is in line with IJM’s vision to defend the widow.
At IJM Gulu, we are defending the constitutional right of women and widows. As a Christian, my conviction is to provide the service to those in need. Like Isaiah 1:17 says: to defend the oppressed and plead for the widow. I have this conviction which I know is right, nothing can stand in my way.
You’ve helped restore 151 widows and orphans to property that is rightfully theirs. What is your hope for the communities where they have returned and are now rebuilding lives in safety?
My hope is that IJM will help restore civility in the communities and show that differences can be resolved in a lawful and respectful way. My hope is to restore law and order; there is no need to harm each other over land disputes. We can show people how to use the institutions which the government has set up to peacefully solve disputes.
It is not about who has power or is the strongest.
What do you love about living in Gulu?
I don’t love the roads! But what I love about Gulu is the IJM office. The family and home I’ve made here at IJM Gulu are what keep me going every day. Living away from the city and family is difficult at times, but the great work of IJM is what keeps me here in Gulu.