Angella nearly lost 18,000 Mozambican meticals (approximately $553), money that it took her years to save, when she tried to buy a piece of land.
The original owner refused to give her the legal documents despite multiple requests for them. Eventually, she asked for her money back but he refused.
Angella had no idea what her rights were or what to do, so she decided to drop the case and move on.
Thankfully, someone told her about a group of lawyers who help people for free. Through this group, mediation was undertaken and now the man who tried to cheat Angella is returning the money in installments.
This would never have happened if she hadn’t heard about the Association of Mozambican Christian Lawyers (AMAC) operating out of an old church in Beira and set up by BMS World Mission.
Angella’s story is not unique. Thousands of people all over the world are in similar situations – needing legal advice, advocacy, support – but cannot afford lawyers. Only those who can pay expensive fees benefit from the unjust system.
Worse still, many people have no idea that there are laws in place to protect them.
So who is responsible for righting this wrong and restoring balance to systems that are so heavily weighted against the poor and marginalized? And what role should mission play?
The Bible is full of verses calling Christians to help those around them. To follow this call, should mission agencies and other charities be more focused on providing legal work?
Knowledge is power and that is certainly true when it comes to understanding your legal rights.
In Mozambique, members of AMAC travel around the country to educate communities about the laws that govern their lives.
“Educating people in their freedoms is absolutely fundamental to development,” said Damien Miller, a BMS legal worker in Mozambique. This knowledge serves as a source of empowerment and a stabilizer for a community, especially for those who fall along the margins of society.
Widows and orphans are some of the most vulnerable people in Mozambique. Once a husband or father dies, a male relative of his will often claim the land and force its former, rightful occupants off, leaving them few or no options.
If victims of land grabs knew their rights and where they could go for help, not only would they be equipped to deal with this traumatic event but it probably would not happen at all.
“Understanding the boundaries that the law sets within itself provides a freedom for the community to flourish,” said Mark Barrell, executive director of the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship and former BMS lawyer.
In some places, once people become aware of their rights, they develop a hunger to know more.
Miler witnessed this in a church whose congregation was predominantly middle class.
They were aware that their community had needs and his seminar provided the group with ways to address them.
This village also became aware that there were lawyers, not too far away, who could provide advocacy in court, help with mediations and were willing to handle smaller cases – family law, inheritance, land rights – without expecting a large payment.
The way they see lawyers is beginning to change and AMAC’s free services may, as a consequence, become a very important influence. Sadly, a thirst for knowledge of legal issues is not always how the training is received.
In rural areas, there is more resistance because villagers cannot see why legal education is needed.
A village elder telling you to leave your land so that his family can move in (or pay him a large sum of money to stay), is a normal, accepted part of life.
“Often, the frustration is that the people who need the information and assistance we’re providing the most are those that we need to be the most patient and persistent with,” Miller said.
In northern Uganda, the Ugandan Christian Lawyers Fraternity (UCLF) does similar education work in Gulu District.
Many of the issues are the same: widows forced off land once their husbands die, inheritance rights and land disputes.
After each seminar, there is one reaction that they get again and again.
“Usually they are shocked because they never knew they had rights,” BMS and UCLF lawyer Linda Darby said. “Some women believed that they needed to bear a lot of boys so that they could stay on the land. They never knew girls could inherit.”
Knowledge really is power. And in this case, it is providing the poor and voiceless with the strength they need to make themselves heard.
“I think what’s specific about justice work, particularly access to justice work, is that it provides people with a voice,” said Steve Sanderson, BMS manager for mission projects.
Vickey Casey is a writer for BMS World Mission. A longer version of this article first appeared in the Summer 2015 edition of Engage magazine – a publication of BMS World Mission. It is used with permission.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here.