November has been a good month for women in Malawi. Parliament finally recognized that women have the right to inherit from the marital estate. In the past, after the death of her husband, a woman and her children were often left with nothing, no matter the length of the marriage and contributions to the estate. In addition to losing the family home, widows had to contend with the husband’s relatives descending to grab property—silverware, bedding, clothes, everything. The new Deceased Estates Act protects the spouse’s and children’s share in the estate. Moreover, the Act makes property grabbing an offense, liable for a fine of MK1 Million (USD 6,250) or imprisonment for up to three years.
This victory was not without struggle. Women in Law in Southern Africa (WLSA)—Malawi, a premier women’s rights group, has been fighting for 12 years to reform inheritance laws in Malawi. Last year, a bill requesting an amendment of the inheritance laws reached Parliament only to then be rejected. Members of the largely male Parliament expressed discomfort with the idea that a wife and children should have an automatic share in the estate after a husband’s death. They argued that their inheritance should be entirely up to the husband’s will. Otherwise, wouldn’t women start killing their husbands in order to access property?
Unfortunately, Malawi Parliamentarians are not alone in these sentiments. According to UNICEF, women perform 66% of the world’s work and produce 50% of the food, but only earn 10% of the world’s income and own about 1% of property. As the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) has noted, throughout sub-Saharan Africa, “[i]n in many cases, subsequent to the HIV/AIDS related deaths of male partners or disclosure of their HIV/AIDS status, women are divested of their marital property, inheritance rights, livelihoods, and at times even their children, by relatives who forcibly evict them from their homes.”
Women’s economic disempowerment is particularly problematic in the shadow of AIDS. Not only has AIDS magnified suffering from discriminatory inheritance laws, but realization of women’s property and inheritance rights is critical in addressing the epidemic. Women’s inability to own, dispose of, and inherit property creates economic dependence on men, trapping women in abusive relations where they are less empowered to protect themselves from HIV infection or seek treatment. Women face increased vulnerability upon a husband’s death and may be forced to participate in widow inheritance (where the woman herself is “inherited” by the husband’s relatives), polygyny, or high-risk work to survive. Impoverished women also have reduced capacity to cope with the disease.
Advocates throughout Eastern and Southern Africa are coming together to fight this abuse. In 2009, WLSA Malawi and the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA)—Kenya founded WIN (Women’s Inheritance Now!), a network of legal practitioners and human rights activists who have come together to advance women’s property and inheritance rights in the context of HIV and AIDS in Eastern and Southern Africa through the sharing of information, experiences, and strategies (Please see http://winafrica.org/ for additional information.).
Now that the law recognizes women in Malawi, the next step is education. Malawi’s women will only benefit if judges and communities are educated about the new law. Next week (the week of November 28), WIN is hosting a web forum at http://winafrica.org/ with a series of e-chats with judges from Kenya, Malawi, and Tanzania on women’s property rights and intersection with HIV/AIDS. An important milestone has been reached, but the struggle for justice continues with a focus on implementation.