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Fighting property grabbing

CONFIDENT – Kamanga

She fondly called them in-laws and she cherished exchanging gifts with them when her husband, Isaac Mang’ombe, was still alive.

But when Mang’ombe died in 2014, the seemingly loving in-laws became violent and abusive.

Kambombo Banda, now 35, and Mang’ombe, had been married for 11 years and together had three children, all of them girls, whose eldest turned seven in 2014.

Mang’ombe hailed from Mgombe Village while Kambombo comes from Group Village Head Thanga both in Traditional Authority (T/A) Mwansambo in Nkhotakota District.

“Isaac was a very loving husband and father. We cherished each other’s time and we lived a happy life together. He used to save and invest any coin he would lay his hands on for the sake of our daughters,” Kambombo recalls.

But Mang’ombe’s relatives had a different idea on the deceased estate. In no time after the burial of her husband, the relatives came to grab every valuable thing in their home, leaving her with the children to take care of.

University of Malawi law lecturer, Ngeyi Kanyongolo, told the media recently that property grabbing is one of the commonest problems relating to infringement of human rights in relation to deceased estates, which directly affects widows and children.

Kanyongolo defined property grabbing as a practice where a widow is forcibly dispossessed of all the deceased property whatsoever or a larger part thereof, by relatives of the husband during sickness, funeral ceremony or immediately thereafter.

On the other hand, the Centre for Advice, Research and Education on Rights, a non-governmental organisation, says over 50 percent of legal and human rights-related cases it handles are issues about deceased estates.

Malawi Women’s Voice Executive Director, Vera Chirwa, says property grabbing is now a common practice in rural and urban Malawi.

She says section 24 of Malawi’s Constitution recognises the rights of women and puts them as a special category apart from other rights.

With Support from the Charles Stewart-Mott Foundation, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace of the Archdiocese of Lilongwe (CCJP Lilongwe) is implementing a project aimed at improving access to justice for women and children through improving the quality and accessibility of primary justice system.

The project is being implemented in T/As Mwadzama and Mwansambo in Nkhotakota and its major objective is to achieve enhanced capacity of village tribunals to respond to gender-based violence (GBV), improved coordination between the formal and informal justice systems in responding to GBV.

Kambombo says had it not been for the rolling out of this project in her area, she would still have been a victim of property grabbing.

After her in-laws took everything from her, she lodged a complaint with marriage counsellors who ruled in favour of the grabbers. She was not satisfied.

She took the matter to a traditional chief, who also sided with the perpetrators of property grabbing.

But the tables turned when Kambombo took the case to the village tribunal, which thoroughly reviewed the case and found that there had been irregularities in the way the marriage counsellors and the chief had arrived at their determination.

The tribunal ordered that the family property, including three acres of her farmland, be returned to her and the children.

The tribunal also took Mang’ombe’s relatives through a series of counselling sessions where they were informed about the pieces of legislation that protect women and children.

These counselling sessions helped them understand the role of family members towards a widow and the deceased after the demise of their loved one.

“They confessed that they had been doing this out ignorance. They immediately returned all the property had they grabbed, including our farmland. What is more interesting is that the same people who grabbed our property have once again become part of the family. They frequently visit me and provide us with support when it is needed. I no longer buy notebooks for my daughters; they do,” she explains.

CCJP Lilongwe archdiocesan secretary, Noel Mtonza, says the project is also using ‘Start awareness support action (Sasa)’ approach to engage communities and families to prevent intimate partner violence and promote gender equity.

“SASA entails selecting and supporting community members to actively discuss and engage on issues of gender inequality, violence and HIV. These community members include community activists, professionals such as healthcare workers, the police and local cultural and government leaders who identify problems in the area and find solutions to the same,” he explains.

Mtonza further discloses that these activists work on voluntary basis and are supported by CCJP Lilongwe through regular training and mentoring to conduct a variety of activities to engage women and men, groups and institutions with the community.

Stella Kamanga, one of the community-based educators (CBEs) in T/A Mwadzama, says they have formed over 30 Sasa groups, which are educating couples on power and violence against women and make connections to their own lives.

On the other hand, Juliana Raphael – another CBE from T/A Mwadzama – says through this approach, the groups have successfully challenged some decisions chiefs have made in relation to women, children and land rights.

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