Nereah can now sleep soundly again
Today, brave and obstinate widow Nereah Otieno is happy and relieved. She no longer lives under threat of being evicted or killed. The court has now ruled that she owns her own land and that no-one can take it away from her. Her struggle began in 2012, fourteen years after she was widowed.
Husband’s relatives demanded Nereah’s land
Nereah Otieno in Kenya is 70 years old and has been a widow since 1998. One day relatives of her late husband came to her, claiming that her ten acres of land were now theirs. Nereah had all the necessary paperwork – in strictly legal terms, the land was hers. But her husband’s relatives had bribed the local chieftain to gain his support.
Threatened with her life
It went so far that they threatened to kill Nereah to make her give up her land. “We’ll cut you up into little pieces,” said her late husband’s relatives.
“I was so scared. I had terrible nightmares and thought I would be dead before dawn. It was like torture,” says Nereah.
Nereah has two children, a daughter who is married and a son who lives in Nairobi, where he is looking for work. Her husband died in 1998 but it was not until 2012 that his relatives came and demanded that she hand over her land to them. They argued that ten acres was too much land for a woman on her own.
Sought support from the local chieftain
Nereah went to the local chieftain, who is the person appointed to resolve community disputes of a simple nature. What she was unaware of at that time was that her late husband’s brothers had bribed him. In the year that followed, Nereah visited the chieftain several times at his office, 15 kilometres from Nereha’s home. She was sent from pillar to post but received neither help nor concrete answers to her questions.
When the chieftain finally passed ‘judgement’, he said:
“We agree that the land is yours, but just let these people have it because you are on your own. From now on, if you make trouble, you’ll have the authorities on your back.”
But Nereah is a stubborn and brave person. She stood her ground and refused to move. Six months later, she received new threats. The relatives of her late husband really wanted to get rid of her:
“My family had turned against me and my friends were scared too. I was completely alone in my struggle for justice,” says Nereah, with sadness in her voice.
Was supported in her struggle and won
One day, by way of a coincidence, Nereah was listening to the radio and on that particular day, the organization ADS Nyanza broadcast a programme in the local language with questions from listeners on inheritance disputes. She now understood that she was not alone, that there was hope and she could get help.
The next day she left home at five o’clock in the morning to visit ADS Nyanza’s ‘barefoot lawyers’, almost 20 kilometres away. When she arrived at their office she met Jimmy Carter, who quickly realised the gravity of the situation and launched new legal proceedings.
Nereah was then supported throughout the legal wrangling and a few months later, it was once again proven that the land she lived and worked on was hers. Also, the authorities warned the local chieftain and threatened him with dismissal if he took bribes again.
“I’m delighted to have my land back. I now know that God is not asleep and that there is justice for vulnerable people like myself. I got help from the people at ADS Nyanza and I’m so pleased that they had that radio programme,” says Nereah.
Treated with respect and helps others in the same situation
Nereah says that she encounters a completely different attitude from people nowadays:
“Now, everyone respects me. Even those with power know that I’m a person who knows my rights and how to claim them. And I feel safe and secure. I can sleep soundly again.”
But Nereah’s struggle was not just about her personally. Since her sense of security has been restored, Nereah has helped two other widows to get in touch with ADS Nyanza’s ‘barefoot lawyers’ (paralegals).
“And all those who live around here are more careful now with how they handle widows’ property and land. They know they can’t simply do whatever they please,” says Nereah, summing up.
Violence against women in connection with disputes on ownership rights is common in Kenya. In Mfangano where Nereah lives, there were a total of 10 cases in 2013, but this figure was somewhat lower in 2014.
Widows, particularly those with no sons, run a great risk of losing all their property because the traditional view is that the late husband owned everything. When he dies, his relatives consider that ownership should pass to them. The tradition is that sons inherit their fathers while daughters are married off.
ADS Nyanza receives support from Diakonia. In turn, it works with a local radio station, Ekialo Kiona, and ADS Nyanza’s ‘barefoot lawyers’ (paralegals) broadcast programmes in two different local languages lasting one hour every Thursday. The programmes are about human rights and sexual and reproductive rights (SRHR). The radio programmes have a wide reach in the region, giving people who otherwise have no access to information a chance to learn about their rights and where they can get help.