Door: Liza Koch

Malawi today is one of the poorest countries in Africa. With an agro-based economy and most people living as smallholder farmers in rural areas, the economy, as well as the people, hugely depend on arable land. Besides agriculture, there are not many alternatives for Malawians. Land is therefore the most important means to ensure subsistence. Yet, land has become scarce over the past decades because of the high population density coupled with a growing interest in land for investments. This has resulted in increasing pressure on land, especially for many rural people. Consequently, issues and conflicts around land rights and access to land have grown, which has a negative effect on land tenure security for women.

In order to address this land scarcity, a new generation of land tenure reforms and land policies have been introduced in Malawi. The changing land legislation and ongoing land reform processes are supposed to improve tenure security and increase access to land for women. However, the effects of these changes and reforms have been questioned, because they, for example, cause friction with customary land laws. Besides, there is a big gap between legislation and local realities.

During my field research, I examined the land tenure security for rural women in Southern Malawi by looking at the land rights situation and access to land for these women. I explored how land reforms are implemented in the daily lives of rural women and if they influence their ability to access land. I spoke to many women who deal with land conflicts, to give an example:

Rhoda is 41-years-old and lives together with her husband and six children in her birthplace Kwandama village, in Southern Malawi. When I visit her in March 2017, she welcomes me with open arms and a big smile. During our interview, Rhoda explains that according to the customary practices of Southern Malawi, women are supposed to inherit family land. However, that does not mean that women have the power over the land, instead they are often victims of land conflicts.

Rhoda herself is an example of this. When I look around, I see that Rhoda’s house is surrounded by farmland, of which some parts are not cultivated. Rhoda explains that it is all family land, nevertheless, she tells me that her relatives do not allow her to use the land for her crops, even though it is not cultivated. Within her family, Rhoda’s relatives have lots of land to cultivate and to live on. Yet, Rhoda owns a small piece of land, just enough for a house for her family.

Rhoda’s mother passed away when she was still a child. Normally when this happens, the children inherit the land. Yet, because Rhoda and her brother and sister were not old enough, their aunt and uncle took care of them and the land. According to the custom, the relatives are supposed to give it back by the time the children are mature and can take care of themselves. However, over the years the aunt and uncle decided that the piece of land that was used by Rhoda’s mother belonged to them.

Around 20 years ago, when Rhoda was old enough, the issue went to the village head and the judgement was in favour of the children, which means that the land should belong to Rhoda and her brother and sister. However, despite the judgement, the uncle and aunt denied Rhoda to use the land. Up to the present day, she does not benefit from the judgement, and thus her right to own and hold the piece of land that her mother left behind.

When I interviewed Rhoda, I was perplexed that the judgement of the village head 20 years ago had not changed the situation for Rhoda up to the present day. Even though she has the rights to land, she does not have access. This is just one example of the many women I spoke to during my field research, who deal with land issues. As illustrated in the example, social relations are crucial for land tenure security. It is important to take into account the various factors, such as gender, authority and family relations, that play a role in the ability to access land in addition to policies and legislation.

During my research, I found that land scarcity exacerbates gender vulnerability, especially in Southern Malawi where women according to the customary practice inherit family land. Furthermore, strengthening women’s land rights and their land tenure security alone is not sufficient to address the larger issues that arise from land scarcity, such as the dependence of land. Therefore, more research needs to be done about economic and livelihood capacities that can have an impact on land productivity and could potentially reduce the dependence of land. Hopefully then, the larger issues of land and increasing conflicts can be addressed in the context of increasing population.