Women in Malawi are hopeful that they will soon be allowed to own land. Currently both tradition and legislation deny them that right. But today, efforts are underway to teach women how they can change things for the better.
Malawians rely on women to produce food for the family. By tradition women are the ones who produce food crops, while men focus on lucrative cash crops like tobacco and tea. But a study by the NGO ActionAid International-Malawi indicates that women are the most vulnerable to hunger. At the family table, food is first served to men and children – women usually eat last. ActionAid advocate Mildred Sharra says women's problems begin in the fields, where they are denied full access to the means of production -- land and seeds.
"I think as a country we haven't really addressed the critical issue. The [women] don't own the critical resources that are used to produce food. So they are not in a position to decide how much to keep, how much to sell. Although they provide the labor, they produce and they process the food, they can't make decisions because they are under men and they don't own land," she says.
Womens rights groups say the country's 1995 constitution discriminates against them. It does not allow women to acquire land in a divorce or when the husband dies. The only exceptions are if the woman has a legal document proving that her husband has agreed to joint ownership or she can show she contributed financially to the upkeep of the property. Most women cannot do that."
Nellipie Metete is among tens of thousands of women who have lost land after the death of their husbands.
"After the death of my husband, my in-laws asked me to move out of the house in which we were living with my husband. When they saw that I was resisting, they leveled false accusations against me that ended up with me in the police custody for four days. But I was later released without charges. When the matter was taken to court it was discovered that I was innocent and the arrest was aimed [at threatening] me to (make me) leave the place."
After the intervention of the rights organization, her sons – who officially inherited and now own the property – granted her permission to work part of the land.
Bongololo is the traditional leader of several villages in the northern district of Rumphi. He is encouraging an end to families kicking widows off their deceased husbands' properties.
"That was a tradition of the past. In my area I managed to put that tradition to (an) end. However those widows who are dispossessed land and chased away from their husband's homes are those who sleep around with other men after the death of a husband and no family member can condone that."
To change this tradition, Sharra says her organization is encouraging women to participate in a review of the 2002 land policy, which is easier to change than the constitution.
"Our first intervention was to raise awareness on land policy. And then we went to the land law. What is it that women should know about land law? Are there any womens rights provisions in that law? And we found out that there is no guarantee for women's ownership of land. In our intervention women had been able to give their views, suggestions and recommendations of what should be contained in the revised land policy, she says"
A campaign to introduce inheritance legislation is also being championed by the Malawi chapter of the advocacy group Women in Law for Southern Africa Research Trust. Executive Director Seode White says once enacted the legislation would impose heavy penalties on those who take a widow's property.