KAMPALA, UGANDA – After her husband died, Harriet and her eight children endured years of abuse from relatives who wanted to steal her home and land.
But today—thanks to collaboration between local police and IJM Kampala—Harriet and her family are safe. Two violent relatives have been arrested, tried and found guilty of their crimes. Her home is secure, and Harriet is overjoyed.
"Everyone in Harriet's community knew about the terror under which she was living," says IJM Uganda Deputy Director Kathryn Wilkes. "Now, after years of being harassed and terrorized, Harriet's tormentors have been arrested, charged and restrained, and they will be held accountable for their crimes."
Relatives' Threats Build to Constant Fear
Harriet's terror began just after her husband died in 2008. Even before the funeral took place, his relatives demanded that Harriet vacate their home—leaving her children and property to them—but she bravely refused. She says, "If I left my children with my husband's family, they would be turned into street kids."
Relatives then tried to starve them out by stealing or cutting down the crops Harriet grew to feed her family. Harriet's brother-in-law moved into a home next to hers, where he would repeatedly harass and verbally abuse Harriet.
For five years, Harriet's oldest daughter, Sarah, watched as her mother was subjected to these threats, insults and humiliation. Police seemed unable to stop the abuse, and local leaders failed to help. Sarah feared that one day she would return home from school to find her mother dead.
Finding a Defender Just in Time
The threats reached a terrifying peak in May 2013. Two of Sarah's cousins stormed the home late in the night and violently beat on the walls—causing bricks to fall in on Harriet's family inside. They screamed threats and demanded that Harriet abandon the home. One of the cousins threatened to kill Harriet and bury her where no one would find her.
Fearing for her family's safety, Sarah confided in her church leaders, who referred her to IJM Kampala for the urgent help they needed. For the first time, Harriet's family had an ally and hope for the future.
IJM investigators worked with local police to obtain evidence of the terrifying violence. On August 12, 2013, they arrested the two cousins who had attacked the home and threatened Harriet. A judge denied their request to leave on bail, so the cousins will remain in prison as they await trial.
IJM Staff Attorney Geraldine Kabami says, "The arrests and detention sent panic to the other relatives and gave them a reality check that criminals get apprehended. This tells the community that the long arm of the law will stop you if you commit criminal acts against vulnerable widows and orphans."
Judge Stands Firm—No Easy Way Out
Several days after the abusive relatives were arrested, IJM and local council leaders met with Harriet's extended family to affirm the widow's rights and clearly mark out her land. They discovered that Harriet had rights to even more land than she knew. Harriet can use it to support herself and her children for years to come.
On September 23, 2013, the two relatives who violently threatened Harriet were at last brought before a judge. Harriet bravely testified about their harassment, and her abusers finally admitted their crimes and asked her forgiveness. Geraldine called their confession "a remarkable moment."
Many times, confessions and apologies like this satisfy the court and cases end there. But this judge remained steadfast that justice needed to be done. She found the relatives guilty, ordered them to pay Harriet for the crops they destroyed and laid out serious prison sentences if they ever harassed her again.
Convicting these relatives in spite of their confession represents a promising change for local courts in the fight against property grabbing. Many members of the community attempt to prey on poor widows because they believe there will be no consequences from local law enforcement. This clear ruling showed the community that courts and laws will in fact protect the powerless.
Celebrating the judge's decision, Geraldine says, "It meant triumph for Harriet and her children—and triumph for every widow and orphan who sat in that courtroom!"
Safe, Secure and Feeling "Stronger"
IJM will continue to work with Harriet's family as they make sure her home and land are secure. IJM social workers have ensured Sarah and her siblings are in school and getting what they need to succeed.
For Harriet, these convictions signify an end to the years of abuse and fear she endured. Now she knows her children are safe, and that no one can rob them of a safe and secure home.
"I am thankful my daughter went to IJM," Harriet says with an enormous smile. "I feel joy deep down in my heart. I feel stronger now. I feel victorious."