At the age of 42, Martha John of Denje Village, Traditional Authority Mwansambo in Nkhotakota district lost her husband and the idea of returning back to her parent’s home village struck her mind when the in-laws told her she had to leave the husbands home.
With no education to aid her get employment, she survived on piece works where she had to work in people’s farms for her to bring food on the table.
The mother of five had no choice but to force her children out of school as the breadwinner who was their father was no more and she couldn’t afford to pay for their fees.
Her only way out of the situation though for a short time was the land that the husband left her. Farming was the only choice.
But the greedy family members from her late husband’s side told her the land belongs to one of the men relations and not her anymore.
Justification being she was just a woman who was married into the family and since the husband is dead then its either she marries the husband’s brother or go back to her parents.
Without knowing what to do and in a serious dilemma, she decided to leave for her parent’s village hoping to seek solace in the hands of her family.
But a friend advised her to stay and report the issue to the village headman in the area who upon hearing Martha’s side of the story decided to step in and help out.
He called the two parties to a hearing where he also had to seek help from the Traditional Authority who later presented a judgement in favour of the widow.
She was given back her 1.5-acre piece of land and is now able to grow crops to fend for her family. Her children are back in school and she can now concentrate on other piece works that help her survive when its not the farming period in Malawi.
Says Martha: “I was so happy to have my land back. My life is now better knowing I own the land. With the help of the committee I was able to register the piece of land and I know no one will take it from me and my children.”
But there is hope for many women like Martha who have had their land grabbed because with the passing of the new land laws in Malawi, there are customary land committees that are helping to reduce cases of land grabbing from widows and orphans and people are now registering their pieces of land.
Group Village Head Denje who is a member of Denje Village customary land committee says women in the area will now be respected and be at liberty to use the land left by their husbands without fear of it being grabbed.
“This is helping a lot. Now cases of land grabbing have reduced in this area because people understand the role of the committee and Nkhotakota is a pioneer district on customary land registration meaning our people now understand the importance of having their customary land registered to avoid issues of land grabbing. I am optimistic that this will promote peace and community development,” he says.
President Lazarus Chakwera in his State of the Nation Address on September 4, 2020, talked about the need to ensure that land is protected and utilized to benefit the people of Malawi.
The President, however, in May 2022 assented to six land-related bills including Land (Amendment), Land Survey (Amendment), Physical Planning (Amendment), Customary Land (Amendment), Land Acquisition and Compensation (Amendment), and Registered Land (Amendment).
The Customary Land Act that the President assented to gave people power to own land. People are now receiving certificates as evidence of land ownership through the land parcel adjudication and demarcation exercise.
Trends have however proved to be different from district to district as in matrilineal marriage systems, women are either registering their customary land parcels in their own names, children’s names, or family names (as families in joint registration), with some registering their land in family names.
Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Lands Davie Chilonga says another observation in the land registration exercise is that joint land registration between husbands and wives is working better in matrilineal communities, while individual land registration is common practice in patrilineal societies that prefer men and male children as rightful heirs of customary land.
One possible weakness of the new land laws that may be there during initial stages of parcel demarcation, and may need review, is the aspect of a single Land Clerk for each and every Traditional Authority which is now called Traditional Land Management Area (TLMA) as provided for in the new law.
Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) executive director, Michael Kaiyatsa, says the enactment of the Customary Land Act in 2017 was a game changer in as far as customary land ownership by women is concerned citing previously, women were largely excluded from customary land ownership due to social and gender norms.
Says Kaiyatsa: “The new customary law allows women to own and register customary land in their own right. The law also provides for the establishment of land committees and customary land tribunal at the local level and that it requires that 50 percent of the members of both the committee and the tribunal should be female. This is important as it ensures that women’s rights and their voice in decision-making on land issues are protected. It also ensures that women are not treated less favourably than their male counterparts.”
He however, says that although Malawi has these progressive provisions in the law, there still a lot more that needs to be done to ensure women have access to land.
“Specifically, we need to do more to address social norms that hinder women’s access, ownership and control of land. We also need to address gender based violence as this undermines women’s access and control of land,” he adds.
Customary Land Act and other land related laws ensure that people’s land parcels are protected from preventable disputes that emanate from informal and outrageous land acquisition tendencies in communities.
The law is formalising the roles of traditional leaders in adjudicating and managing customary land, as opposed to the previous arrangement which was just a delegated role without any legal framework.
The new laws have touched on sticky areas of land administration and acquisition, such as the need for appropriate compensation when one is losing land parcel or part of it to any prospective developer.