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Country analysis > Malawi Last update: 2020-11-27  

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Women's Property and Inheritance Rights and the Land Reform Process in Malawi

By Naomi Ngwira PhD
Institute for Policy Research and Analysis for Dialogue

Posted with permission of the author
[Complete version - 151Kb ~ 1 min (21 pages)]     [ Share with a friend  ]

This paper is based on a study funded by Development Alternatives, Inc., grant number G-2370-016-33, with financing from USAID under contract number FAO-Q-00-96-90006-00 of the Ngo Small Grants Program.


Malawi is on the verge of a land reform process with consequences of significant proportions that may be disastrous for women's and disadvantaged people's livelihoods security. The New Land Policy and proposed Land Act are for the first time going to enable the titularization of land tenure, using institutions and procedures that are potently gender biased in the context of the evolution of customs and perceptions on gender and property rights from matrifocused /communal norms, to supporting western androcentric/individualistic norms. This is being done under the rubric of privatization and liberalization, driven by the needs of the fanged forces of globalization. This land reform process may lead to the legitimization of the expropriation of land away from women and the poor on scale and with the speed never seen before anywhere in the world.

This raises questions about the relevance of customary norms on gender and property rights for the present situation: what components of the norms should be maintained, and what should be forced or be allowed to evolve out? There is need to dialogue for consensus around these issues. So all is not gloom and doom. Once consensus is reached, it is possible to make anticipatory decisions and plan to mitigate the negative consequences of the adopted positions. As gender equity is a norm and policy of the land reform process, there is need for the careful review of marriage, property ownership and inheritance customs, laws, and practices; as well the review of the structures for administering and adjudicating property ownership and inheritance matters. This requires on the action research, looking at the various procedures and forms and processes that will be followed, to make sure that they are gender appropriate, and that they take care of the needs of orphans and the poor in general. There is also need to increase and reorient the facilitating role of the gender ministry so that it can respond effectively to the gender and poverty reduction objectives. Thus the proposed Land Act should address the whole range of issues that impinge on women's and disadvantaged people's land rights: customs, perceptions, laws, administration and adjudication institutions, and economic policies.


This paper points to the need for the reform of the institutions for assigning and securing women's and disadvantaged people's land ownership and inheritance entitlements. This includes changes in customs, perception, laws and structures for administering and adjudicating ownership and inheritance matters, as well as policies and programs related to livelihoods derived from land. Those responsible for implementing the new Land Policy and crafting the Land Act need to continually look out for subtleties and nuances in these institutions that if ignored would lead to extensive dispossession of land from women, orphans and the poor with negative consequences for their welfare.

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