Land is nearly everything for most Malawians as the population has surged from 13 million to 18.4 million in the past decade.
The rising scrambles for land terrify Sarah Kumwenda, from Kamzinga Village, a tobacco-growing rural locality in Rumphi.
The 38-year-old doesn’t want her five children to suffer land grabs or chronic hunger when she dies.
However, she has grown up hearing women have no claim to land owned by their parents or spouses.
“Land is our main source of livelihood, the only inheritance for most of us, but men in my Tumbuka cultural setting made it abundantly clear that I have no right to land. My parents used to say their land belonged to my brothers because girls follow their husbands. Yet, my husband and his brothers had already shared their land, leaving no inch for me,” she says.
This is the dilemma faced by many Malawian women.
In 2006, Sarah married a polygamous man and the co-wives farmed one plot with no say on land and crop yield.
Sarah was determined to shatter the mold. After Chikulamayembe Women Forum senstised her and 29 other women to land laws with support from Action Aid, she approached her husband to give her a share.
“The training opened my eyes. For a year, I shared with my husband what I had learnt and he realised the importance of giving women control over land,” she narrates.
To make land laws work, Sarah and her village head persuaded the man to give her farmland the size of two football fields where she grows maize, beans and groundnuts.
“It was the happiest day in my marriage came when he gave me two acres with signed papers stamped by our village head. That year, I harvested enough maize to fill three oxcarts and asked my husband to decide what to do with it. He was stunned because he thought I was dispossessing him of land,” she brags.
The couple reserved enough food to take them to the next harvest and sold surplus to buy basics for their household and school-going children. They also acquired assets, including livestock, beds, mattresses and a bicycle their first-born son uses to get to Bolero Community Day Secondary School on time.
“I couldn’t believe that my husband and I could discuss money issues as equals. Previously, I had no idea how he was spending our shared earnings. Opening my mouth was provoking trouble,” she explains.
Sarah also negotiated for a part of her father’s land, formerly reserved for her brothers.
Group village head Mwendapalera, one of the male champions for women’s rights to land, urges all traditional leaders “to follow Paramount Chief Chikulamayembe’s example “by supporting women’s land rights for greater gender equality and productivity.”
However, the land laws Parliament revised in 2016 face fierce resistance in male-dominated cultures, including the neighbouring Mzimba District where chiefs banned a land rights lobby by Land Net, arguing that all land belongs to men.
Time for change
Village head Kamzinga of Sarah’s village backs the land reforms: “Women rights are human rights. When women own land, everyone wins, including husbands and children.
“Men cannot continue operating like one-man bands. After selling tobacco and other crops, women could only hear big figures, but didn’t see the money or how their husbands were spending. Men were wasting money on sex workers, not the wives who toiled for it.”
Chikulamayembe Women’s Forum, formed to confront such gender imbalances, has helped 365 women own land with chiefs’ backing.
“The forum started in 2007 when a study showed massive resistance to gender equality and women’s economic rights to own land and benefit from proceeds of farming. This is changing with increased awareness, chief’s involvement and male champions,” says its programme coordinator Regina Chihana.
And Sarah’s husband, Kamzinga Mkandawire, has no regrets.
“At first, I didn’t believe a woman could own land. I thought it was a takeover. But women are equal to men. They do more farm work. They need food. They feed their families. They deserve a share of land from their parents and spouses,” he states.
Flagging her ‘deed’ in the air, Sarah says: “This paper is my peace of mind, my will and my pension. It assures me that if I die, my children won’t have to fight for this land. I have settled a potential land dispute before it occurs.
“Since I own this land, I work harder because I now see its benefits.”