Esperance M’Murhi married a travelling trader at the age of 17. But her husband was more concerned with his business, and spent little time with his family.
Eight years ago, her husband set off to seek his fortune in the mining area of Maniema Province, in eastern DRC. When the family didn’t hear from him for eight months, his brothers took land from Esperance which she was farming for subsistence. At first, she did nothing, because she didn’t know what to do.
Then, at an event in 2012 to mark the International Day of Rural Women, Esperance learned about her right to the land.
The central theme of the Day is rural women and land rights. Through the event, Esperance understood that she not only had the right to recover the fields grabbed by her in-laws, but that she could claim them by taking her case to the local authorities. She decided to make a formal complaint to the village council.
Just as Esperance was about to file a complaint against her brothers-in-law, her own father tried to dissuade her. Esperance recalls: “My father strongly advised me to withdraw the complaint … [he worried] that this could discredit the entire family, and my little sisters might not find husbands in the future. But I was unconvinced by his argument, and, to his great displeasure, I continued fighting.”
The head of her village had committed himself to receive all cases from female victims of illegal land grabs and, if their case was proven, to reinstate their land rights. Esperance was successful and the land was returned to her.
But her in-laws are still pressuring Esperance to give them back the land. She says: “My mother-in-law and her two sons accuse me of being a witch. They spread rumours throughout the village that I have killed my husband with magic.” She whispers, “Now they slander me by calling me kasahene ashubala oku bihebe [the nanny goat that urinates on billy goats].”
Oscar Balagizi is the younger of Esperance’s brothers-in-law. His face twists with rage as he says, “This witch used her charms to stun our brother to take sole possession of his fields. We will take, for our brother, the land she is still holding to ransom.”
Esperance is not the only village woman who was robbed of her property. Mapendo Mwa Mudekereza is a neighbour who was widowed five years ago. Her in-laws seized two of the four fields left by her husband. As she was about to file a case with the village council, her husband’s brothers met and unanimously decided to acknowledge the widow’s rights. The family wanted to avoid the possibility of suffering the shame experienced by Esperance’s in-laws.
But Esperance’s courage is far from common among the many village women and girls who are victims of inheritance theft. Most continue to fear the reprisals that could result from bringing a case to the council. Others defer to the customary position that men’s claims are stronger than women’s rights.
Although Esperance has regained her dignity and her property, she lives in near-permanent conflict with her brothers-in-law. Recently, she narrowly avoided a fight with Mr. Oscar Balagizi by stating, “If you dare to fight me, I will report how each of us behaved to the village council.” Mr. Balagizi decided to stop his threats.