Imagine you are a woman whose husband has recently passed away.
You are distraught, dealing with grief. One day, on top of all of the emotions and trials you are trying to overcome, your in-laws inform you that the place where you are living no longer belongs to you. They claim that having belonged to their son the house is theirs and they are there to take it.
Now not only have you lost your husband, you’ve also lost your home.
Interested in the magnitude of this problem, I was glad when some students at the Malawi Institute of Journalism involved in Neighborhood Watch, a radio program highlighting human rights issues in Blantyre and the surrounding communities, produced a segment on the topic. In North America this problem probably wouldn’t occur, and if it did, the property owner wouldn’t hesitate to sue.
As it turns out, property grabbing is a serious issue in Malawi and elsewhere in Africa. For the student contributors at Neighborhood Watch, finding a victim was relatively easy, as with increasing deaths related to HIV and AIDS, many women in Malawi are left widowed and vulnerable to property grabbing.
One such story comes from one Mrs. Msokho, a mother of five children who was recently widowed after 15 years of marriage. Soon after her husband’s death, his family showed up to lay claim to her property.
“After my husband died and the mourning period passed, my husband’s family came to tell me I could remarry as per our culture,” Mrs. Msokho said. “On the day they came, my brother-in-law told me that we should sell part of the land on which I was living.”
Mrs. Msokho’s mother-in-law justified her claims, “After the mourning period, I told my daughter-in-law that [she] should be assisting me because when my son was alive he was the one who was assisting me," she said.
Culturally, perpetrating families believe that widows - particularly those who are young - will have the opportunity to marry again. However, the prospect of marriage so soon after eviction is very slim and immediate needs for the family must be met, which can lead to prostitution. Children also bear the brunt of supporting the family, often as street children.
Equal right to property between the genders is enshrined in the core principles of Malawi’s constitution dealing with gender equality. Furthermore, the constitution recognizes that women have the right and are fully protected under the law “to acquire and maintain rights in property, independently or in association with others, regardless of their marital status.”
Sadly, because 50 per cent of Malawian women are illiterate, many women who are victims of property grabbing do not know what rights they have.
“During the discussion the police officer told my in-laws that the property which is acquired during a marriage between a man and woman belongs to the two of them,” Mrs. Msokho later said.
Inspector Horus Chabuka of the Victim Support Unit of the Blantyre Police explained that when such cases of property grabbing arise, police seek out a confrontation with both parties and attempt to provide counselling.
“We have to follow the procedures of dialogue,” Chabuka explained. “The widow and the husband planned what they have to do for the development of their family in that house.”
“People who have been grabbed of their property should not be afraid to come to police to sue the other party,” Chabuka advised, “We are there to protect them and the law is there to protect them.”
The greatest thing that Chabuka advises in matters that involve or could lead to property grabbing is consideration.
“I have to advise all parties that have dead relatives to think about the family that has been left behind,” Chabuka cautioned, “because they are the people directly involved in the development of the family.”
With files from Mphatso Mwanvani, Ivory Kalemera and Clement Msiska