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MALAWI: Patrilineal Inheritance Prevents Women’s Access to Land

Claire Ngozo

LILONGWE, Mar 9 2010 (IPS) - Mercy Gondwe, 51, from Rumphi in northern Malawi, was married for 34 years. When her husband died in 2008, she assumed she would inherit the land they had been cultivating together since they got married. But this was not the case.

Gondwe’s brother-in-law took over the ownership of the land the day of the funeral, because tradition dictates that only a man has the right to own land. Gondwe and her six children, aged between eight and 20 years, have no choice but to keep living among their in-laws. The terms of the bride price Gondwe’s husband paid when they got married stipulate that a woman and her children belong to her husband and his family.

“My children and I still grow crops on the land, including tobacco, but my brother-in-law tells me what to do with the produce,” Gondwe says.

Tobacco is Malawi’s main export crop. According to Gondwe, she and her husband have been farming tobacco since they got married. Over the years, the proceeds from their tobacco sales helped them to build a house of burnt bricks with a corrugated iron roof, amass a herd of 22 cattle and keep all their children in school.

The woman says her family used to be considered well off, compared to the 65 percent of Malawi’s 13.1 million people who, according to the country’s government, live below the poverty line of less than a dollar per day.

“But now everything belongs to my husband’s family. I don’t have any stake at all. My brother-in-law takes the tobacco to the auction floors, and he only gives me a little amount of money when he comes back,” Gondwe told IPS.

Women who live in patrilineal communities in the northern parts of the country can only access customary land through their husbands and brothers-in-law, confirms Maggie Kathewera-Banda, executive director of non-governmental organisation Women’s Legal Resources Centre (WOLREC).

“By denying women ownership to land, the traditional practice in northern Malawi is denying them their proper standing in the development of the country,” she explained.

Kathewera-Banda notes that land is the main resource for people’s livelihoods and food security in the country, especially in rural areas where communal and customary tenure dominate.

Women make up more than half of Malawi’s total population, and 85 percent of them are primarily involved in subsistence agriculture. Government statistics indicate that agriculture is the largest contributor to the Malawian economy – it accounts for 38 percent of the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 80 percent of export earnings. The sector also provides employment for 85 percent of the population.

Yet, almost 75 percent of the land surface in Malawi is customary land, according to the National Statistical Report of 2004, which largely puts women at a disadvantage in terms of tenure.

The country’s Ministry of Lands indicates in its 2009 report that the “new” Malawi National Land Policy shows government’s desire to address this issue, because it poses constraints to Malawi’s social and economic development. The land policy was approved by cabinet and parliament in 2002 and a Special Law Commission was set up in 2003 to review all land-related laws. The Land Amendment Act will now have to be passed in parliament.

The policy aims to clarify and strengthen customary land rights, among other issues, and is intended to secure land rights for the majority of Malawians living on land formally under customary tenure. It will allow all customary land to be registered and protected by law against abuse.

Within the land policy, all customary landholders, including families, will be encouraged to register their land as private customary estates with land tenure rights. The policy indicates that it will preserve the advantages of customary ownership, but also ensures security of tenure.

“It is hoped that, through the land policy, women in patrilineal communities will be empowered and have the land ownership registered in the family name. The family should be a nuclear family, comprising of a husband, wife and their children,” explained Kathewera-Banda.

She says this will ensure that women can own land in spite of customary and statutory laws, which are largely discriminatory and block women’s right to land. Sections 20 and 24 of Malawi’s constitution give women the right to property and the right not to be discriminated on the basis of gender or marital status, which includes the right to acquire and maintain rights in property, independently or in association with others, regardless of their marital status, Kathewera-Banda further explains.

Wanozga Nyasulu, 43, from Mzimba in northern Malawi is in a similar predicament to Gondwe – but Nyasulu’s husband is alive. “He makes unilateral decisions on the land. As tradition demands, I am only expected to assist in cultivating the land,” she complained.

Nyasulu says her husband decides when they start working in the field, what to grow, what to eat and what to sell: “It’s tradition, and no one can go against that. You would be deemed crazy if you challenged it.”

She confided to IPS that she is looking forward to the day the land policy comes into effect, when patrilineal inheritance of land will be made redundant.

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