Widowed and dispossessed

Date: January 1, 1970
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Women in Karonga, northern Malawi, have only two options when their husbands die: to be inherited by one of the brothers or male relatives, or to leave and go back to their home village, where they have no land or property, only their kitchen utensils. Divorced or widowed women who try to fend for themselves and their children can endure sexual harassment from the traditional chiefs when they approach them for a portion of land to cultivate.

In all of these situations women are prone to gender violence, and are at risk of HIV infection. Property and inheritance rights for women in Southern Africa are critical rights for reducing women’s vulnerability to gender violence and HIV infection. As the AIDS pandemic takes its toll throughout the region, many women find themselves dispossessed.
Customary law in many countries recognises women as temporary custodians of land, and women usually lose their rights to land following the death of a spouse. Widows and divorced women have virtually no tenure or inheritance rights with which to ensure food security for themselves or their children, and many submit to being inherited as a wife by one of their late spouse’s brothers, or engage in risky behaviour to feed their children and survive.
Southern African governments have ratified the 1979 Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which still remains one of the most comprehensive legal instruments on women’s human rights, including their right to property and land. The 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, as well as the region’s own 1997 Southern African Development Community (SADC) Declaration on Gender and Development, among others, also provide benchmarks for gender equality and women’s human rights which countries have translated into national gender policies, plans and to a lesser extent, domesticated within national constitutions.
Land reform initiatives, land law reform and constitutional review processes provide opportune spaces for women’s property and inheritance rights to be enshrined in law, especially as a measure to give women more economic security in light of the AIDS pandemic.
Mozambique, for example, has changed the law to allow women full title to land, and in Malawi, where the law does not discriminate against women in terms of land rights, women comprise 52% of the country’s 12,337,000 people and 51.6% of the female population are classified as land owners. And, Malawi’s proposed new land law provides for land inheritance by children regardless of sex.
But customary law and cultural practices continue to impinge on women’s land and property rights in Malawi, especially women in the northern region who are married in patrilineal systems which confer land inheritance through male lineage.
These women, who are often poor and uneducated, do not know the law and do not have the means to seek justice when they find themselves, dispossessed, and physically or sexually attacked.
Civil society campaigns must strengthen education and awareness initiatives to take the laws to these women in languages that they can understand. Women’s awareness of their own human rights remains one of the greatest challenges throughout the region to women exercising their rights and breaking through the traditions of culture and socialization.
Governments too have a role to play in ensuring that laws to protect women’s rights, especially property and inheritance rights, are implemented at all levels, and that traditional leaders are compliant with policies and measures to end all forms of discrimination against women. Guaranteeing and protecting land rights for women is a major step upwards from leaving them in the depths of poverty.
Mildred Funsani works with the Evangelical Lutheran Development Service/LANDNET Malawi. This article is part of a special series of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service produced ahead of the SADC Heads of State summit in Lesotho from 17-18 August by the Southern Africa Gender Protocol Alliance comprising ten NGOs that promote gender equality in the region.

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