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When a Husband Dies, a Widow Struggles to Survive

International Widows Day is June 23. Photographer Amy Toensing and writer Cynthia Gorney share a look at one woman's story in Uganda.

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Solome Sekimuli in front of her home in Luweero, Uganda. After her husband died, a gang of men stormed the house and claimed it as their own in a practice known as property grabbing.

Solome Sekimuli’s husband died this month, of diabetes, in the Ugandan town of Luweero, where the couple had lived together for almost 25 years. This house, and the modest crop-growing lands around it, were all they and their six children possessed.

The assault inflicted on Solome—it came while she was burying her husband, grieving beside his fresh grave and mourning him in the Luganda language—is in Uganda called “property grabbing”: a gang of men from his family stormed the house, claimed it as their own, threw all Solome’s clothing onto the ceremonial fire outside, and demanded that as the widow she relinquish the property to them, her husband’s brothers.

Where was she to go? They didn’t care. Back to her own parents, they said; no woman should be entitled to such an inheritance, it was THEY who would profit from the bananas, the jackfruit, the coffee, the land itself.

This form of abuse, the seizing of newly widowed women’s property, is well known in Uganda. The country’s own modern constitution prohibits it, though, and new campaigns to fight back—to prosecute property grabbers in court—are among other international efforts to identify and counter special cruelties inflicted against widows.

National Geographic, with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting (@pulitzercenter), is examining such widows’ communities in three continents. Just before International Widows Day, June 23, we joined Solome at the house she insists she will reclaim permanently with the help of Ugandan lawyers and police. “I’m brave, strong, and firm,” she said. “I will win this.”

Photographer Amy Toensing and writer Cynthia Gorney are on assignment in Uganda for an upcoming National Geographic story. Follow Amy on Instagram.

To learn more about widows and property grabbing in Uganda, visit International Justice Mission.

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