LUSAKA, ZAMBIA – Rhona was devastated when a powerful relative stole everything her ex-husband had left to support their two daughters. The theft left her impoverished family struggling for more than a decade on their own—unaided by local authorities—until a team from IJM Zambia came to help.
Last week, Rhona’s 11-year battle for justice finally ended when a local court convicted her sister-in-law for stealing the property that belongs to Rhona and her daughters.
“Before judgment, I was very scared. My heart was beating,” she says. “I didn’t expect she could be jailed. I didn’t expect this outcome—but by the grace of God, his will was done.”
Brazen Theft and Powerful Bullies
When Rhona’s ex-husband passed away 11 years ago, he left his military pension to care for their two daughters. Rhona knew this small amount of money would mean the difference between education and a life of poverty for her girls. Almost immediately after he died, however, his sister stole the money and a house he owned—leaving the girls with nothing.
Shocked, Rhona reported the theft to police, and they arrested her sister-in-law soon after. But Rhona didn’t expect other, more powerful forces at work: A wealthy friend of her sister-in-law quickly put pressure on the police, the army and the Lusaka city council to release her from jail and squash the legal case. He also tried to bribe Rhona to stay quiet. When she refused, he began threatening that she would “surely suffer.”
Rhona tried to fight for the girls’ rights on her own, but against these powerful people there was nothing she could do.
An Uphill Battle
Without help, Rhona struggled to support her family’s basic needs and to pay the school fees that would give her daughters a chance at a better life. She worked three different jobs and had to move back in with her father, but still felt unsafe in their poor community.
Fortunately, she met attorneys from IJM Zambia in 2011, and they offered the free legal help she desperately needed.
“This case was a major uphill battle,” says IJM Zambia Legal Fellow Heather Taylor. “There were so many forces against her, from bribery and intimidation to power actors with major political clout.”
IJM worked with local law enforcement to re-open the case against Rhona’s sister-in-law. Authorities who had been influenced by her powerful friends still tried to obstruct the trial, but IJM pushed on to secure for Rhona’s daughters what was rightfully theirs. Through it all, IJM social workers helped to keep the girls in school and counseled Rhona during the lengthy court process.
"I didn’t expect this outcome—but by the grace of God, his will was done."
A Long-Awaited Victory
After three years in court, the Zambian judge found Rhona’s sister-in-law guilty for stealing their property. He ordered her to return the money and property to Rhona’s daughters—or end up in prison.
In the past, criminals who stole property from widows and orphans in Zambia were rarely convicted. IJM Zambia Field Office Director Claire Wilkinson believes this recent court decision is an important one for the future of other widows. She says, “Rhona’s case is important because it is recognition from the criminal courts in Zambia that land grabbing is not a petty ‘family matter’ but instead is so serious, that it is an offence against the state.
“Our hope is that the criminal justice system would increasingly come down hard on those who steal property from vulnerable widows and orphans, with custodial sentences to offer real deterrence to future perpetrators.”
The conviction also validates that Rhona’s years of struggle were worth it. Today, she is learning how to start a small business with IJM’s help, so that she can build the safe and secure future for her girls she’s dreamed about for 11 years.