How Not to Care for Widows
It's an ancient story that still plays out today, especially in sub-Saharan Africa where, in 2010, 20.9 million widows struggled for survival, according to new research from the UK-based Loomba Foundation.
Western Christians seeking to help the poor in Africa give enormous attention to AIDS and the plight of orphans. But mission and aid workers are discovering that one of the biggest problems is land rights for widows.
When Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, sent church members around the world in 2004 to ask native populations what their biggest needs were, they consistently heard the same complaint, especially in Rwanda: widows were losing their land.
In interviewing judges—including those on the Supreme Court—and lawyers, pastors, and denominational heads, land grabbing, along with physical and sexual violence toward women, always topped the list of urgent concerns.
"We looked at the laws relating to land and women and found that one of the laws had just been brought into the 21st century," said Saddleback attorney Vance Simonds. Rwanda adopted a new constitution in 2003, and for the first time, women were allowed to inherit property. "Women and children had been considered chattel," he said. "Their rights were now set down in the laws. Women could inherit property."
The trouble is that the laws aren't being enforced, and not just in Rwanda. In Uganda, "[There] is a set of laws from the constitution on down that do require equal access to land and allow women to own, inherit, buy, and sell land," said Jesse Rudy, International Justice Mission (IJM) field director in Kampala, Uganda. "In practice, that doesn't happen."
Rudy likens these laws to a building full of antiretroviral drugs, made useless without any syringes. "They aren't getting the laws to the people who need them the most. The implementation level is not an effective enforcement of the law. People don't know or understand the law."
Tim Hanstad, CEO of Landesa—an organization that partners with governments and local churches and charities to secure land rights for poor families worldwide—says this problem has been around since the Old Testament period. Hanstad cites the Book of Ruth: "It's a story of Naomi—Ruth's mother-in-law—who is a poor widow. She no longer owns her husband's land. She is unable to redeem it herself and goes elsewhere."
A Familiar Story
The struggle for a widow to hang on to her land follows a somewhat predictable pattern after a husband's death. His family will tell her, sometimes at the funeral, to leave. Rudy said, "Everything she has relied on to support her is gone and has actually turned on her."
Being evicted from the land is a terrifying, desperate experience, but women don't give up their husband's home or land without a fight. Rudy said, "Clients know what the consequences of leaving are. Starvation and death are on the other side of leaving their house." More than half of African widows—55 percent according to one research report—face pressure to leave their land after their husband dies.