Gender Inequality in MalawiWhile the idea of women being denied property may seem antiquated, it is a modern norm furthering gender inequality in Malawi. In the central and southern regions of Malawi, land is intended to be passed down to women through generations; however, Bridget Matinga-Katunda, a researcher at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, explained that this matrilineal system is not as good as it may sound. She stated, “Even under matrilineal systems, decision-making power on land ownership usually lies with male clan leaders who decide who gets a piece of land.”

Excluded from Ownership

Ministry of Hope Malawi, a nonprofit helping orphans and other at-risk communities, spoke to The Borgen Project on this issue. The Program Director for this organization, Daniel Moyo, recalls his personal experience with gendered land laws in Malawi. He describes a “patrilineal culture” where “men own the land and women have no access to land.” According to U.N. Women, around 70% of women work in agriculture. Therefore, despite taking care of the land, they are still not entitled to its ownership.

Additionally, the United Nations states that Malawian legal codes do “not provide for the division of matrimonial property upon dissolution of the marriage. This matter has been left entirely to the courts to decide.” Even if modern legal codes attempt to address the gender inequality in Malawi regarding land ownership, societal trends – often discriminatory – determine who inherits the land. This is especially true if the woman in question is not in a position of power in the community.

Moyo commented, “Personally, after the death of my Dad, all the land we had was confiscated by people we did not even know, leaving us and mum with no land.” His situation is not unusual. Reuters News uncovered that only around 17% of Malawian females are landowners. This parallels the lack of power and representation, as the World Bank reports that in 2019, only 23% of parliamentary seats in Malawai were held by women.

Advocating for a Cultural Shift

While there are legal protections in place for women, the land delegation and nuptial divisions are vague. Groups within the culture are open to interpret them and often adhere to sexist traditions and thought processes. Furthermore, less than one percent of land in Malawi is purchased. Almost all of it is inherited or acquired through marriage. Women report deep insecurity on their land ownership especially if something were to happen to their husbands. Malawian society’s cultural attitude toward women as more inferior to men is often used to justify the sexist land laws.

In order to correct these injustices, a policy shift is necessary to help widows survive and take care of children. Updating the territorial legislation in Malawi could vastly improve its gender equality and the overall economy. Moyo explains that “decision making in the homes is often left to the men. This is one key issue [and at] Ministry of Hope we have been championing women leadership and helping the women to have a voice and not just take everything that the man says…how to use money, how many children to have…they say women in Malawi produce seventy percent of the food but they consume only thirty percent of the same.”

Similarly, organizations such as the Malawi Law Society are fighting for a legal system that is more modern and just. However, an all-encompassing solution must go beyond legality and address the nuances of Malawian agriculture and its connection to gender. Providing social, economic and ownership protections for these laborers is crucial for correcting sexist land laws in Malawi.

Moving Forward

Organizations such as the Ministry of Hope are fighting the discriminatory land laws and working toward ending gender inequality in Malawi by shifting cultural perception. Individuals can help by funding nonprofits based in southern Africa that provide guidance along with financial assistance. Moving forward, continued work by these groups will hopefully help end discriminatory practices.

– Annie Bennett
Photo: Flickr

Conflicts over the appropriation of land in Africa can be traced back to colonial times, when lands were deeded to settlers at the expense of the local communities, and later, when countries began to pull out of colonies, to favored tribes and factions.

During the 20th century, many countries across sub-Saharan Africa chose to nationalize lands in order to redress such inequalities, and today many unique factors such as increased competition due to population growth, decreased supply of arable land due to climate change, poor land records, and general corruption have led to conflicts in the region.

A new report published by the World Bank reveals that stronger land ownership laws and management may be the key to improving agricultural productivity across the continent within the next decade. Land policy and management reform is necessary to alleviating poverty because land is often the most valuable asset that people can own, and because countries with clear land tenure policies are seen as better potential investments.

10 facts on poverty in Africa.

If sound policies are in place, the land can also be a mechanism for the transfer of wealth through generations. Furthermore, lack of access to land hits those in rural areas the hardest because the majority of the population depends on land for the production of food. A 2008 report from the Southern African Development Community states that the key to easier land access is a reduction of costly transfer fees and policies that make sure that the possibility of land ownership is a right for people of all demographics, regardless of ethnicity or sex.

The World Bank study also states that while many African countries have legal institutions that are capable of documenting land ownership, only about ten percent of rural land is registered. This leads to land disputes and even “land grabbing” after the death of land owners. In cases where land is held by groups or tribes, there also needs to be a method of registering communal land. More collaboration between countries would also be extremely useful, as there are some countries that appear to be getting the process right. Tanzania, for example, has registered sixty percent of its communal land at a fraction of the cost that other nations are completing the task (approximately $77 kilometer to Ghana’s $500-700 per kilometer).

Concerning land registration, disputes are bound to happen, but according to the World Bank, the establishment of impartial, uncorrupted institutions that are capable of dealing with such disputes is necessary. In some countries, like Ghana, tribunals specialized to deal with land issues have blossomed as subsidiary branches of already existing judicial systems, but they are unsurprisingly just as vulnerable to corruption and backlog as any other governmental system. The study states that most successful approaches to alleviating this include paying judges overtime and hiring retired ones to reduce congestion in the system, training judges better in land procedures, and changes in institutional culture where corruption occurs.

People’s identities are often inextricably tied to the land that they or their ancestors lived on and worked. This is not only true for Africa, but also for places all over the world. Thus, it’s vitally important, not only if we are serious about meeting the Millennium Development Goals in reducing poverty, but also if we care about the basic rights to provide for themselves and their families.

 Samantha Mauney

Sources: World Bank, SADC Photo: NPR