A Ugandan Court Defends a Grandmother and Sets a New Precedent

Juliana (center) with Kathryn Wilkes and Florence Sitenda, Aftercare Specialist, immediately after the conviction in her case.
Juliana (center) with Kathryn Wilkes and Florence Sitenda, Aftercare Specialist, immediately after the conviction in her case.

KAMPALA, UGANDA—

By Kathryn Wilkes

Kathryn Wilkes is the Field Office Director for IJM Kampala. She and her team have helped defend more than 1,000 widows and orphans from property grabbing. 

You may have heard Juliana’s story from us before. She is an elderly widow who was attacked with a machete—her hand was severely cut when she raised it to block the machete’s blow to her head. This attack came after months of abuse, threats, and intimidation from a distant relative, who claimed that Juliana’s land belonged to him.

The man said that because Juliana was a woman, she had no right to the home. Her home—the house she had lived in for decades and the land where she had buried four children and her husband. When we met Juliana last year, she recounted the man’s chilling words to her:

“If you don’t give me a portion of this land, blood is going to be spilled here. A person will die in this family.” 

Local officials got involved and the man signed multiple letters of apology agreeing to leave Juliana alone. But peace never lasted. He continued to return, each time the threats escalating. Ultimately, he moved in and started building a house on her land, and that’s when he attacked 70-year-old Juliana with a machete as she tried to defend herself.

Our team responded immediately that day, and we went with police to help Juliana. The police arrested the man, but even as they escorted him off the land he hurled threats and told Juliana he would be back to “finish what he started.”

How is this bold power play and blatant violence possible? Because this man has no reason to fear the law.

That is, until now.

This week, a Ugandan court sentenced him to six years in prison. That’s the longest sentence in any property grabbing case that we have ever worked on in Uganda.

The Chief Magistrate repeatedly emphasized not just the assaults and threats, but also the man’s intent to forcibly take Juliana’s land. In sentencing she stated that this abuse is “rampant” in Mukono (the district where we work) and “very serious,” concluding that the “act of grabbing property is condemned by this court.”

We praise God that Juliana and her grandchildren are safe and will remain safe. We pray that the assailant—who was defiant even during the sentencing—will have time to reflect and find true repentance (in a location where he can’t terrorize or come back and kill Juliana).

And we hope that this just conviction sends a strong message to the entire community (the ruling is already making headlines in our local papers in Uganda): that widows will be protected and property grabbers held accountable.

Laws against property grabbing can be enforced. And when they are, criminals discover they aren’t more powerful than the law, and widows and orphans get the protection they deserve.

It was incredible to stand by Juliana’s side as the court stood up for her rights.“I use to really worry, cry all the time, and not eat. I’d sit and wonder where he is and whether he would come that night and attack us.” Juliana once told us; now, she said joyfully: "I don't fear...I can finally eat and sleep peacefully again. All I want is that he never comes back to my home again."

Africa, Uganda, Land Theft, Conviction