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."

When 26-year-old Constance Kyalimpa's husband Paul died of AIDS, his family immediately asked her to leave her five children with them and go away, explaining that because she didn't belong to their tribe, she had no right to her husband's land or possessions.

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.

A widow cannot easily go back to her home village. Hanstad said, "Women in these situations are often forced into desperation, which often leads to risky behavior."

When 26-year-old Constance Kyalimpa's husband Paul died of AIDS in Uganda, his family immediately asked her to leave her five children with them and go away, explaining that because she didn't belong to their tribe, she had no right to her husband's land or possessions.

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Then his family began to take things from her, such as Paul's cows. They threatened to take Paul's motorcycle, but one of his brothers offered to pay Kyalimpa in exchange for using it. The plan worked until her stepson disappeared with the motorcycle, leaving her with no source of income.

Meanwhile, Paul's uncle was trying to sell the land to foreign investors, who wanted to build a factory. The uncle claimed the land belonged to him and to Paul, and since Paul was dead, the land reverted to him.

Kyalimpa sold her goat to get enough money to travel into the city, where she reported what was happening to the administrator general. (When someone dies without a will, this national office ensures that no one takes or gives away property of the deceased without legal authority.) The office wrote letters to the business developer, who promised to wait for Kyalimpa's consent before purchasing, and to Paul's family, who paid no attention.

If the widow hangs on—and she generally does—the measures may turn violent. Rudy recalled clients who "have had their homes pushed in on them when they were asleep" or "whom perpetrators have tried to bludgeon to death with a brick." Crops are slashed or burned at night. The family is beaten until they agree to leave or they are threatened with a machete.

When Kyalimpa's stepson discovered she was challenging the sale, he threatened to cut her, and he began carrying around a machete.

"I used to get in the house early and go to bed very early," she said. "I was scared."

Then the counselor from Kyalimpa's AIDS support organization told her that a respected leader would come to teach widows how to keep their land. "That night I did not sleep," she said. IJM put her in touch with the proper authorities, called everyone involved, and brought in surveyors to establish boundaries around Kyalimpa's six acres. Eventually, she acquired a deed to the property.

IJM helped Kyalimpa put her children back in school and loaned her money to rear pigs. She also began to earn money making beads through the Bead for Life organization. She is building tenant houses on her land, which she will be able to rent out. Kyalimpa came from a Catholic background, but her encounter with other Christians through IJM introduced her to Jesus, she said. She now attends Zion Lutheran Church.

"IJM resurrected me," she said. "They got my bones and covered them with flesh."

Why the Land?

Land insecurity has larger implications for the poor. "We in the West often underestimate the close relationship between . . . right to land and poverty," Hanstad said. "It is often not understood that three-quarters of the world's poorest people live in rural areas. Landlessness is the best predictor of poverty in many places."

Land insecurity is also telling in agricultural productivity and yield gaps, which refer to how nearly farmers reach the physical potential of the land they're working. "Africa as a whole is using well under half, more commonly about 25 percent, of the potential of that land," said Hanstad. "One of the reasons for that is because the people who are actually farming the land don't have the long-term security, and incentives that go with that, to make long-term productive investments in the land. That's a land tenure issue."

It's a serious problem. The women, who have the most tenuous grip on the land, are producing 60 to 80 percent of the food in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

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The underproductivity of the land is also a major reason behind the so-called "land grab" of recent years. Global demand for food and bio-fuels is causing global investors to search for unused or underused land. In all of Africa, nearly 148 million acres—an area the size of France—was purchased or leased by foreign companies or governments in 2009 alone. Seventy percent of that land was in sub-Saharan Africa.

The squeeze on the land has pinched women the hardest, since fewer of them own titles to land and many are left out of land inheritance. "Women are certainly being disproportionately affected," Hanstad said. "Even when some compensation is given, it's the male head of household who receives that compensation and controls it."

Forcing out widows and weaker owners is made possible by Africa's struggle to document land ownership—something that has been going on since colonization, said Sandra Joireman, international relations professor at Wheaton College in Illinois. Joireman specializes in property rights and legal development in previously colonized countries.

She explains that in much of Africa, there were usually two systems of land rights, something that was carried over even when the countries began to claim independence. "We get this dual system of property rights that continued, except it is no longer the subject and the colonizer. It becomes the wealthy people in cities who have formal rights, and the rural, less-educated people who have customary rights."

The biggest difference is that formalized land can be bought, sold, or inherited, while customary land reverts back to the community (the family or the chief) after the landowner dies, she said.

"It means you can't decide to sell your land and move to the city," Joireman said. "You also can't mortgage your house to start a business. No bank will ever give you a loan." More than 90 percent of land in Africa is still outside the formal legal system, according to the FAO.

A 2012 study released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development revealed that children who live in countries where women lack the ability to own land are on average 60 percent more malnourished than children in countries where women have some or equal access to land.

"If [widows] have more security in the land, they're more likely to steward it better, more likely to make long-term investments, more likely to access credit," Hanstad said. This leads to a more productive agriculture, which leads to a more productive economy. In countries where women have equal access to land, agriculture yields go up by 20 to 30 percent, according to the FAO.

First Line of Justice: Clergy, Elders

Progress is being made to document ownership, through projects like Rwanda's land tenure regularization program. The primary goal is to issue titles to every landholder in the country. A World Bank research group found that two and a half years after implementation, the program had improved access to land for married women.

In Uganda, IJM pressed officials to enforce existing laws, enabling 529 victims to regain their property. The office handles between 80 and 100 cases at any given time, so in response to the demand, IJM will open a second office this fall in northern Uganda's Gulu region.

In Rwanda and Kenya, Landesa is working on structural changes, to define and clarify the rights that exist for women, and creating a property rights regime to back them up. "Part of that structural solution is changing formal laws—where it's needed—to give not only women equal rights to land, but to better clarify the rights that exist," Hanstad said. After understanding the local customs, Landesa works to change the laws in ways that can formalize and legally protect women's rights to land, he said.

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But changing the law, while necessary, often isn't sufficient, he said. The first line of justice isn't the courts—it's the clergy, elders, and tribal leaders. They are the ones to help women, who are poor and unable to access courts, explains Landesa spokesperson Rena Singer.

"Traditional elders determine everything from inheritance disputes to whether a girl goes to school and domestic violence."

Educating those elders about the law turns them into advocates for women, Singer said. "The elders tell the men, 'You'd better put your wife's name on your title, for your kids,' " she said. "It's effective."

Educating clergy can have the same effect, Saddleback attorney Simonds said. Pastors are present and influential at critical times in a woman's life—the wedding, her children's births, the death of her husband. Saddleback has been working informally with IJM to understand the laws and pass that knowledge on to pastors, he said.

"Whether talking about HIV or clean water or literacy or land grabbing, it's always about letting the pastor be the center," he said. "You can go to little villages all over the world and you might not see a fire department or a city hall or even a grocery store, but you'll see a church."

Two hundred of Saddleback's network of 2,200 pastors in Rwanda have been trained through an education curriculum to protect widows from land grabs. (A video is under development in order to speed up the training and to reach more pastors.)

Pastors are taught about the principles of the law, how to make very basic wills, and how to preach a funeral sermon that exhorts the family to care for the widow and fatherless. They also learn about official marriage licenses, birth certificates, and wills, all of which can stand between a widow and the loss of her land.

"We teach the pastors the critical importance of getting married in the church and being recognized by government authorities," Simonds said. If there aren't verification papers, a government might recognize the brother's rights over the widow's claim.

Documenting a child's birth is also crucial, so that the rights of the woman and her children will be established before the husband dies, Simonds said. "Throughout the Bible there are implications that we should care for the widows and fatherless," Simonds said. "One of the things we try to do for pastors is make the bridge."

It's hard to imagine that people who should be the guardians of widows and orphans are the very ones preying on them, he said. "It's a meaningful quest we're on," Simonds said. "Christ himself said in Luke 20, 'Beware of the teachers of the law …. They devour widows' houses and … will be punished most severely.' What else could that mean other than land grabbing in the sense that we're talking about right now?"

Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra is a freelance writer based in Chicago. With additional reporting by Esther Nakkazi in Kampala, Uganda.

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