LUSAKA - For the poor in a place such as Zambia, and perhaps for the poor in every place, there is an eggshell fragility to life. A single crack and all is broken.

For Zilose, a gentle woman in her early 40s, it began with the death of her husband, probably from AIDS. Then she became sick, with typical AIDS symptoms -- trouble with her legs, a persistent cough. After spending some time in her home village, she returned to Lusaka to find that her in-laws had taken all her property and had ordered her out of her home. This is a common practice called "property grabbing," in which relatives of a dead husband steal everything from the widow and her children. Zilose refused to leave her home, but she was forced to send her 10-year-old child away because she could no longer afford to care for him.

Zilose urgently needed a lawyer, and she found one through a remarkable organization called International Justice Mission. The staff at IJM pressed the court case for the recovery of her property and helped her get AIDS treatment and job training. Sitting in her two-room cinderblock home, with neat embroidery and lace covering battered furniture, Zilose reports that her health is now good and asks eagerly about the progress of her case, which should be decided by the end of the year.

When experts in development talk about the "rule of law," they often mean protections for business contracts and commerce. But Zilose's case is also a failure of the rule of law -- one far more common and destructive, especially for women and girls.

Across the developing world, poor women receive little justice when it comes to property issues, sexual slavery, domestic abuse or sexual violence. Hard figures are difficult to come by, but a World Bank report has estimated that in some parts of the developing world, more than two-thirds of women are beaten or coerced into sex during their lifetimes. And almost all of these crimes take place with impunity. Police are often indifferent, hostile or corrupt; judges and prosecutors view rape and abuse as lesser offenses; lawyers who take such cases are either unaffordable or unavailable.

The lawyers working at IJM in Zambia point to the defilement of young women as a particularly disturbing case study. There is a persistent myth in Africa that sexual relations with a virgin will cure AIDS. So IJM has seen a 2-year-old rape victim with permanent physical injuries and a mentally disabled 6-year-old rape victim. The physical evidence of these crimes is clear. But children are often not allowed to give sworn testimony in court. And there is no DNA testing to provide evidence. So, according to one IJM employee, getting a conviction often comes down to: "Can anyone hear you scream?"

Zambian law has strict penalties for defilement and rape. And the Zambian government has created a victims-support unit to deal with such crimes. But the cultural obstacles to enforcement are massive. Says one IJM employee: "When women bring a charge against their husband, the police often tell her, 'This is a domestic matter.' Even her own family will sometimes tell her, 'Go back to your husband.'"

These problems call for a range of responses, including girls' education and the economic empowerment of women. It is difficult to know and claim your rights if you cannot read, and it is difficult to leave an abusive environment if you cannot earn a living on your own.

IJM has opened another promising front in the cause of development and human rights. In addition to providing the poor with lawyers, it coprosecutes rape and defilement cases with the police in Zambia. And it gives community workshops on property rights. The one I attended was alternately conducted in two Zambian languages I did not understand, but I occasionally caught the English phrases "fixed assets," "title deeds" and "executors."

The founder of IJM, Gary Haugen, argues that the legal empowerment of the poor is an essential precondition for development. He believes the United States could make a dramatic difference in the developing world by helping to strengthen and professionalize responsible police and prosecutors -- training them to use rape kits and other tools of the trade -- and by supporting the provision of legal aid to the poor. And Haugen believes that even the small victories of simply enforcing existing laws can encourage broader social change, as the possibility of justice gradually becomes an expectation of justice.

For millions of women such as Zilose, nothing is more important.

Michael Gerson's column is distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group.