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MALAWI: Property grabbing escalates in wake of AIDS deaths

Photo: World Vision\Jon Warren
Property grabbing can break up homes and leave families destitute
Malawi, 29 November 2002 (PlusNews) - [The family names of some people featured in this article have been withheld at their request]

As more and more people die of AIDS, traditional practices of inheritance are becoming a source of grief and subsequent hardship for many Malawian widows.

Shortly before he died in 1999, Florence's husband said she and the children should remain in their home in the capital Lilongwe. "But when my husband died, his relatives came and said I should sell the house and return home to the village," recalled Florence, who is 35.

She did as the relatives instructed, only to be dispossessed of everything she and her husband had owned. "My husband's relatives met us on the road, stopped the truck [carrying her possessions] and diverted it to their village. Here they took everything off the truck and demanded that I give them the money I had collected from my late husband's employer.

"A week later, a family meeting was convened and all the household goods and money were distributed to my husband's relatives. I went back to my village with nothing," she said. Since then, Florence said, she has struggled to survive without a regular source of income.

Last August, Florence began feeling weak, and made her way to the AIDS Information and Counselling Centre (MAICC) in the small town of Mponela, five kilometres from her home in the central Dowa district of Malawi. Here she was diagnosed HIV positive.

Susana, a counsellor at MAICC since 1995, says Florence's case is not uncommon. "Most of the women I counsel have problems with inheritance," Susana explained. "I've never heard of a man having such problems. The inheritance issue is a big problem in the villages."

According to Seodi White, Malawi National Coordinator of the Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA) research trust, property grabbing is illegal. However, White said the law also states that, in the absence of a written will, the property of the deceased should be divided between family and relatives. As a result, the practice of property grabbing continues.

The AIDS epidemic has exacerbated the problem, said White. "When HIV-positive people started getting sick, we found that relatives began taking away their property. The HIV-positive people believed they deserved to be treated like that just because they didn't know their rights."

Like many rural Malawians, Florence's husband did not write a will before he died. Not that Florence thinks a will would have helped her: "Even if a will had been written, they [the relatives] wouldn't have followed it. My in-laws changed when my husband died. During the nine years we were married, they were good people. I was surprised to see them change so much when he died."

Such attitudes are rooted in Malawi's patriarchal society, White explained. "Women are not seen as being able to buy property ... Culturally, in Malawi, when a woman gets married, she is not related to her husband. Therefore when the husband dies, the wife is expected to go back to her family, leaving the property to her husband's relatives."

Added White: "It's very rare for the relatives of a [deceased or dying] wife to come and take away property from a husband." This only happens if there was evidence that the wife had bought the property, she explained, but such evidence was seldom required when the relatives of a dead husband remove property.

In light of the recent upsurge in property grabbing, WLSA has extended its outreach work to include community-based AIDS organisations such as MAICC.

Recently, about 40 counsellors, carers, volunteers and clients, were gathered in a semi-built hall behind MAICC's small office, a stone's throw from the main road from Lilongwe to the northern city of Mzuzu. They listen intently as WLSA staff members explain the legalities of inheritance, but the participants' subsequent questions highlighted how far removed the law was from day-to-day practice.

"What happens when there is more than one wife, who qualifies for inheritance then? You can't split a bicycle three ways!" one participant asked. "What happens if the husband writes the will in secret and includes things that he didn't buy?" another wanted to know.

However, the main stumbling block appears to be the law's prerequisite for paperwork. Many people are buried before a death certificate can be issued, as the relevant government offices are often far from rural homes, some of the MAICC clients pointed out.

The same goes for magistrates' courts, where inheritance claims are processed. And even when a widow manages to find her way to the right authority, corrupt officials sometimes demand bribes, another participant explained, to nods of agreement from other clients. Or else well-connected relatives of the deceased use their influence to block a widow's claim.

The WLSA staff do their best to offer practical solutions to the myriad of problems raised by the group, but White later admitted that sometimes there was little she and her colleagues could do besides make people aware of their rights. Nonetheless, White continued, many traditional leaders are supportive of widow's rights, and therefore WLSA is advocating for traditional leaders to be granted greater administrative powers, something government appears reluctant to do.

Property grabbing affects not only rural women. Beauty, a middle-aged Malawian professional, moved to South Africa with her husband and children in the early 1990s in search of new employment opportunities. Her husband died of AIDS in 2000.

"By the time my husband died, there was R3 [30 US cents] in our bank account [the rest of the money having gone on the husband's medical treatment]. But his relatives phoned time and again to tell me to sell the house and to bring the body back to Malawi. They weren't thinking of the three kids and me, and the fact that we would be left with nothing. There was still 15 years left on the house bond .... but all they knew was that my husband had a good job, and therefore they wanted what was due to them."

Beauty stood her ground and remained in Johannesburg. "If I had been in Malawi, I would have lost everything. Instead, we buried my husband in South Africa. His relatives didn't come to the funeral – they said they couldn't afford it!"

Not all widows suffer in the way that Beauty and Florence have. Mary, 47, a widow with six children and two grandchildren, works as a volunteer at MAICC. The grandchildren were orphaned when Mary's daughter died in 1997, a year after Mary's husband passed away.

"Before my husband died, he told his relatives that all the property he had was for me and the children. At the same time, he gave some cattle and some money to his relatives," Mary explained. "As a result, we kept the property."

The same went for Mary's daughter who, according to Mary, took all the household possessions to her late husband's relatives, and discussed with them how the property should be divided.

"They resolved that my daughter and the children should keep the property," Mary said. "By approaching and consulting with her husband's relatives, she was showing them that she did not intend to sever ties with them ... However, inheritance can be dicey. You never know how people will react. The best thing for anyone to do to is to write a will."

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[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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