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Malawi Women Fight for Rights Amid Challenges


Women’s rights organizations in Malawi are pushing for equality in a male-dominated society. Voice of America English to Africa reporter Lameck Masina in Blantyre reports on some of their efforts.

Women’s groups in Malawi complain that the Constitution, adopted in 1995, does not protect women well enough. It includes a Bill of Rights that establishes the principle of equality for women. Women make up over half the country’s population. But they say they’re not treated fairly on many issues. An example is the distribution of land in divorce cases. A widow does not inherit her husband’s land unless she can produce a legal document showing joint ownership, or she must show she contributed financially to the upkeep of the property. Most women cannot do that. So in many cases, the husband’s family simply occupies the land after he dies.

A campaign to introduce inheritance legislation is being undertaken by the Malawi Chapter of the advocacy group Women and Law in Southern Africa Research Trust, (WLSA-Malawi).

Seode White is the national coordinator for the organization. She says, “At the moment the law dispossesses women of their property when the husband dies. Because in a country like this one, you will find out that when the husband dies, the family from the male side come and dispossess her of the property the [because] we believe in Malawi that a husband and a wife are never related and therefore when he dies for sure the property must belong to him [the man’s relatives].”

White says once enacted, the legislation will impose a heavy penalty on those who take the property of a widow.

She says another cause of concern is that Malawian women are far behind in the workplace because of what she calls Malawi’s patriarchal nature.

“The construction of our society is oppressive to women. It treats women as second-class citizens. Women in Malawi do not believe in themselves no matter how intelligent they are. Women in Malawi do not occupy even the most basic positions. [In] the positions of clerks, messengers, at managerial level, the story is the same. Most of these are occupied by men.”

White encourages women’s groups to hold governments accountable by lobbying politicians and pushing to change oppressive laws.

In 2006, the organization successfully pressed for the enactment of the Malawi Prevention of Domestic Violence legislation, which criminalizes domestic violence against women. But she says in addition to some success stories, there have been many problems.

“The biggest challenge has been slow efforts by our government to pass laws that we have recommended and fought for change. For example Will and Inheritance, Marriage Laws, Citizenship laws all these are highly discriminatory and highly oppressive. So the challenges are the slowness of the process and lack of commitment and we are very concerned about the government’s position on this issue at this time.”

But a published report by Women and Law in Southern Africa titled Beyond Inequalities indicates that the government has also been making progress in promoting equality over the past 10 years. Among its successes is a National Gender Policy that works to encourage the equal participation of men and women. The government has also named the country’s first woman attorney general, and women hold the top posts at the National Electoral Commission and the ministries of foreign affairs and of information.