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Where women and children are disinherited

Women in Malawi face numerous socio-economic problems as a result of discrimination and other negative gender-related attitudes, but rampant cases of property grabbing violating the rights of widows and orphans emerged a prime concern that was highlighted at this year’s International Women's Day.
Hobbs Gama

The southern African country of 10 million people with 52 per cent of population constituting women is recording one of the highest HIV/Aids deaths leaving in the wake increasing numbers of widows and children. Due to culture that places women at a disadvantage, Many are victimised by relatives of their deceased husbands who strip them off all property left by the deceased spouse.

During the commemorations of the day that falls on the 8th of March each year Malawi had as its local theme, "Empowerment of Women: Key to Achieving the Millennium Development Goals." Women organisation leaders bemoaned the fact that although women were at the centre of caring for society, their contributions were not recognised.

“Such areas as agriculture, health, environmental management, water and sanitation and poverty reduction enjoyed women's input” the Ministry of Gender, Youth and Community Services noted.

Reports from the office of the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) and the Department of Social Affairs indicate growing molestations of widows and orphans who are left poor and helpless by greedy relatives.

President Bakili Muluzi, throwing his weight behind the women's campaign to fight the evil, observed that because of clinging to outdated cultural practices and beliefs, women were quietly suffering gross domestic violence, one of them being property grabbing.

"A lot of innocent widows and orphans are subjected to the malpractice of grabbing deceased estates. Government will effect stiff penalties for perpetrators and accord women their rights," charged Muluzi.

Mary Kaphwereza Banda, gender minister while blaming the practice of polygamy, which she said was among factors spreading the deadly HIV virus, pointed at high illiteracy levels especially among rural women who were not aware of their property rights. Although the law provides for a five -year jail term for property grabbers with a heavy fine, cases of victimised women were on the upswing, prompting activists to urge legislators to speedily review the Wills and Inheritance Act so that it was stronger in checking the trend.

"The problem of property grabbing is aggravated by some cultural beliefs which need to be reviewed to suit the modern day scenario," said Banda, whose ministry in collaboration with stakeholders is pushing for amendment of the Inheritance Act by Parliament.

In Malawi there is a general belief that husbands being bread- winners were responsible for amassing property and personal estates. Families feel there was no need to leave the estates to a widow, especially a young lady as she would remarry and raise another family.

A few days prior to the International Women’s Day commemorations set aside to acknowledge the contributions of women worldwide, church organisations together with social affairs players had already embarked awareness programmes in the rural areas to educate the masses on the adverse effects of property grabbing, besides enlightening the masses about other various rights of women and children that had to be respected.

The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) of the Roman Catholic Church is one of the civic awareness providers. Recently CCJP condemned property grabbing saying it encouraged prostitution and increased numbers of street children.

"In our cities and towns, there is growing numbers of prostitutes and street children, who have no means of survival after relatives of their deceased fathers take away everything," claimed Fr Francis Simwaka at a CCJP workshop on sensitisation.

While the DDP registered up to 20 cases and opened case files in three weeks last year, the social affairs department reported that about four cases are recorded each day in every district, while many other cases went unreported due to ignorance about women’s rights.

The Malawian women, besides denouncing property grabbing, took every opportunity at the global commemoration day to demanding a rightful place at decision-making levels. They noted it was time they raised their voice for such benefits as credit schemes, technology, and training services if they were to help government in its poverty alleviation programmes.

An official of the Women’s Lobby, Faustace Chirwa urged women to identify themselves with political parties in the country to fight for positions in parliament, as councillors in wards, town and district assemblies as well as in the cabinet to assert their place.

"As the 2004 presidential, parliamentary and local government elections draw closer women should know and demand their rights. The forthcoming elections is a chance not to be missed," she said.

Perhaps, another engaging call was that sounded by Malawi's first lady, Patricia Shannil Muluzi, who challenged women to support and promote each other, while also refraining from backbiting.

"We are failing to make progress not only because of oppression from men. Women are their own enemies. Women have a tendency to frustrate each other which is retrogressive to individual development," admonished Muluzi

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