Malawian Women Facing it Hard to Own Land


Since the issue of Gender Equality started taking root in the Southern African country of Malawi in the early 1990s, the nation mustered a lot of efforts to ensure that women economic empowerment is enhanced.
As proof to these efforts Malawi as a country demonstrated an initiative in this regard by appending its signature to a number of instruments that sought to end poverty that has hit women the hardest, like the Millennium Development Goals, Beijing Platform for Action, and African Union Protocol on the Rights of Women to mention but a few.
Despite all the efforts there has been one aspect of women empowerment which has skipped the spotlight and it still is one lingering problem in Malawi where owning property like land for a woman is not only a tall order but has become source of abuse in other quarters.
Investigations reveal that some women have suffered destitution due to cultural factors that left them with no land for housing and farming.
In Malawi and a good part of Africa and Asia land ownership is considered a male realm, mainly because of several factors although cultural practices that marginalise women in this regard takes a centre stage.
Many Malawian women have become destitute while others have lost lives because of their efforts to claim ownership over a piece of land.
Anastasia Mwanza, a 45 year old widow of Mkombanyama Village, Traditional Authority Mwaulambia’s area in Chitipa was married to a man in Nkhata-bay but upon his death she was forced to move back to her maiden home in Chitipa.
However, she was forced to look at impoverishment right in the face as she had no where to live since tradition has it that a woman has no where to build her house or cultivate crops at her maiden home as the belief is that she will have land at her marriage home.
To make matters worse she was also denied land that her brother who had passed away had left. “Sometimes this world can be very cruel; my own traditional leaders refused me to take over my late brother’s land saying I am a woman and I cannot manage it,” she, says before asking, “Can you believe this?”
Another woman in the same village Rosta Nakanyika a mother of six who does not know her age, lost the land which they used to cultivate with her husband, the moment he passed away.
“Relatives from my late husband came in droves and took everything I had. Now I cannot support my children I cannot farm anywhere and I do not know where to go,” she moaned.
Catherine Munthali of the Society for the Advancement of Women (SAW) says the Issue of land owning is a very complex issue because Malawi still maintains two systems of families that is patrineal and matrineal and in both systems there is no clear indication of how a woman owns land.
“In patrineal system a woman owns land under the father and that is when she is not married, the fact that she is still a daughter she has access land,” she explains.
“But when she gets married and leaves her father’s home to go to her husband’s home she forfeits that land because what it means is that she is no longer in the hands of the father since there is dowry that is involved in between the families. But this still has its problems,” explained Munthali further.
Even in the absence of a legal framework, her organisation has nevertheless fought and won some battles for women who were disinherited their land.
“We have taken to task some men that try to take advantage of women; in some cases we have used our lawyers who have successfully represented the abused women and won some cases,” she says.
Chairperson of the NGO Gender Network Emma Kaliya observes that in Malawi sometimes all what women have is access to land while control over that land rests in the hands of the men.
“Even when the woman is a traditional leader, she still cannot make decisions over some land issues; you find that she calls men related to her to make a final say,” she says.
Since traditional means seems to be in much control over these issues, traditional leadership across the country seem to be awash with cases of land disputes whose victims are mostly women who look up to the traditional leaders as their life line.
Traditional Authority Mwaulambia of Chitipa district says he has been solving problems where women were disinherited their land and explains the basis which is used to resolve such matters.
“In my area I enforce that a woman has to be given land based on the need, necessity and her desperation and not based on some of our outdated traditional laws,” he says.
It is not like the women themselves do not have solutions in sight to solve problems they are facing. Anastasia Mwanza thinks a solution could be found by making a plea to the authority.
“I beseech government and all non governmental organisations not to leave us fight our battles. They have to assist us because even when we win some of these battles you find that men will still come to steal from our farms just to make sure that we are so desperate and ask for some assistance from them and in turn you find that they say you have to exchange it with a sexual relationship,” says Mwanza.
While Mwanza is making this plea, NGO Gender Coordination Network Chairperson Kaliya has a totally different view to the matter she thinks it all boils down to enacting our laws and enforcing land policy to protect women. But will women in Malawi one day own land?
“Unless our policy and laws are re-looked women in Malawi will never own land; of course the commercial land which those that have money can afford to buy can sometimes belong to women but for the customary land I don’t think women will ever own it,” she declares.
Government says it is not just sitting idle as it has developed a number of laws that will protect women and cap on its effort to finally ensure that women are empowered even through the provisions of ensuring that they own land.
Fiona Mwale is senior Programs Officer for the Malawi Law Commission and explains how they intend to achieve this by first explaining how this has been incorporated in a number of laws.
“The Law Commission has recently finalised a land reform programme where ownership of land is changing so that these issues where women are disinherited from land for whatever reasons ; the distinction between private land, customary land or public land are going to disappear and once this bill on land reform passes then this will be history,” she says.
However while government banks its hope on the laws to help the woman, thousands of women in Malawi and other parts of the world still suffer destitution.
How ironic when it is the women who have mothered the very people that refuse them land ownership. And this therefore laughs at government effort to achieve gender equality.
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