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For the Least of These

Second-year Hannah Stearns spends her summer fighting for women and children with the International Justice Mission in Uganda.

As a summer legal intern for International Justice Mission (IJM) Uganda, second-year student Hannah Stearns saw first hand the reality of life in a developing country where the rights of the less fortunate often go unprotected in the midst of an over burdened legal system.

In the Uganda field office, IJM focuses on succession-related property grabbing, a problem that is extremely prevalent in most of Africa. This often happens after the death of a spouse and when the widow or widower cannot present proper documentation or a will. If another relative forces them out, they will lose everything.

“Stripped of their homes, and often, the small plots of land where they grew food crops, many widow/ers are consigned to abject poverty,” explains Stearns. “In many cases, having one’s property grabbed is a death sentence.”

Spending the summer researching the property laws in Uganda by searching the Constitution, Acts of Parliament, and case law, Stearns helped rewrite and edit a handbook for clients regarding property grabbing. The handbook informs victims of the newly emerging case laws particularly relevant to their situations.

“Many sections of Ugandan law have been declared void, so judges are making law on a case-by-case basis,” she says. “It was part of my role to determine how the law stands today, and to adequately communicate the law and a person’s rights to our clients.”

“Internet is slow, records don’t exist, and most cases are not online,” she says of the many challenges the job brought. “There is no LexisNexis to look up precedents in Uganda! It is hard to have an overarching view of the problems our clients face on a daily basis.”

For Stearns the story of Claire* illustrates how IJM is affecting those in need, making their lives easier and safer. “When Claire’s husband passed away, she struggled to care for their four young children while dealing with her own serious and chronic health issues, providing them with the best life she could. But nearly five years after her husband’s death, the value of Claire’s very modest house increased when a foreign investor purchased a nearby plot of land. When her late husband’s relatives learned of the development, they came to Claire’s home and announced they were kicking her out of her home, selling it and keeping the profits—and there was nothing she could do to stop them.”

Though a woman’s rights to shared property in a marriage is guaranteed by Ugandan law, widows are often at the mercy of their deceased spouse’s relatives, who use a widow’s vulnerability to lay claim to any property that belonged to the couple, turning them and their children out of their homes and away from their lands.

“Panicked, Claire reported her relatives’ threat to local authorities, but they distorted the truth and Claire was left without an ally and unable to delay her relatives,” explains Stearns. “Despite the fact that they had no proof the home was theirs to sell, a buyer readily agreed to the deal, but she discovered the situation the day before the sale was to go through and contacted IJM.”

An IJM attorney immediately called the buyer and warned him that the purchase would be illegitimate and illegal and the buyer agreed to delay the sale, while IJM’s staff arranged for a legal mediation in order to establish Claire’s right to her property. The attorney then explained to the perpetrators that their actions were illegal and indefensible—and that she was willing to take them to the highest court in the land to ensure that Claire and her children were not left destitute and homeless.

“The perpetrators lost their swagger and dropped their claim, signing a document that said that Claire was the sole owner of the property and that she was to remain safely in her home. Today, Claire is safe on her own property, and IJM aftercare staff are assisting her to start a small pig-raising business, which will be a sustainable source of income for her and her children,” she says.

The summer reinforced Stearns’ commitment to help people across the world. “Every time I leave the country, I am reminded of how much I have and how little the developing world lives on,” she says. “I think it is impossible to witness devastating poverty, disease, and despair without being moved by it. A long time ago, I decided I would do what little I could to alleviate the suffering I witnessed. I did not want to live in a Western bubble, immune to the hurt of the world. From orphanages in China, to IDP camps in Uganda, there is need, and I have something to give. I cannot ignore that.”

*Name has been changed.

by Samantha Troup