Hundreds of Ugandan women fear they will not get the compensation they are fighting for after being evicted from their land as UK aid supporting their legal case is coming to an end.
Villagers in the Kijayo region of western Uganda say that between 2012 and 2015 they were removed from their homes by police at the behest of the company Hoima Sugar Ltd.
“They fired bullets around the village… They chased us from our houses and demolished them,” says Esther Turyahebwa, a single mother.
Hoima Sugar says it bought the land for use as a plantation and rejects the accusation that it evicted families, saying it had paid 142 families between £6 ($8) and £3,900 after discussions with village leaders at the time.
But in 2013, 398 families began legal proceedings against the firm. A legal judgement deciding who owns the land is yet to be made as the judge allocated to the case keeps changing.
A UK aid project aimed at helping women and girls has provided legal support to the villagers since 2017, and also trained them to find new sources of income, such as crocheting and growing vegetables in sacks, now they no longer have land to plant crops.
But the aid funding is scheduled to end in December 2021 and will not be renewed as the UK has decided to reduce its aid spending.
Local non-governmental organisations have not yet been able to secure an aid donor to replace the UK funding, meaning support to the villagers, including Ms Turyahebwa, could be cut off.
After their homes and crops were destroyed in the evictions, most of the men left to go to cities in search of jobs, and the women and their children moved into a squalid displacement camp on the sugar plantation.
Their new homes are little more than shacks made of grass; hospitals and schools are inaccessible and unaffordable – 11 children have died since the move.
Ms Turyahebwa says their daughters are also vulnerable and face sexual harassment from the sugar workers – an allegation Hoima Sugar denies.
Harriet Kimerembe – another woman from Kijayo – says the women had felt hopeless and she had even considered taking her own life.
But she says the legal support they received transformed things for them.
Legal aid clinics teach the women about their property rights and pay for the women to meet the lawyers who represent them in the court case.
“We became empowered and started talking about our land issues confidently,” says Ms Kimerembe.
“That’s why I speak with a loud voice as a Ugandan for the whole world to hear.”
Ms Kimerembe says with legal support their futures can be assured – and the emboldened women are determined to fight on.
“We shall have our own homes and be happy again.”