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Malawian men in South Africa deprive wives property rights

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MATEYO—Husbands want to control their wives

By Imam Wali:

In 2016, Chrissy Islam’s husband, based in South Africa, bought a house at a location known as Airfield around Dedza boma.

Without her knowledge, the man registered the property in the name of his father.

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When she discovered, Islam, 30, a mother of two kids and now expectant with their third child, confronted the husband, asking for fair treatment.

“What this means is that in the event of his death or divorce, I will come out of this marriage with literally nothing, which is absurd anywhere,” Islam says.

She adds: “I always think of what I am going to do with the children when something happens. The most painful part is that all these things are happening while we are living as a husband and wife, and right now I am carrying this pregnancy for the same man.”

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In Dedza, it is common practice for men to travel to work in South Africa, leaving behind wives and children. But there is now a new plague – of such men using their new-found fortune in South Africa to acquire property here at home and registering it not in the names of their wives.

Interestingly, some of the victims are the women who actually sponsored their husbands to travel to the Rainbow Nation to seek fortune to support their families at home.

Some of the areas where this practice is rampant in Dedza are in traditional authorities Kasumbu and Tambala.

Senior Group Kanyenda in Traditional Authority (T/A) Kasumbu says the issue of property ownership is a big problem in the area among families whose husbands are outside the country.

“This is a huge problem in my area, I have to admit. My office receives such cases much often. Four to six women out of 10 whose husbands are in South Africa have been coming with such complaints,” says Kanyenda.

He says he often refers such cases to relevant authorities such as the police, courts, district social welfare office and NGOs for assistance.

Hellen Simwaka, Social Welfare Officer for the district, says her office records at least four such cases every month.

“We receive such cases which are part of marital dispute. What we do when we have such a case is we invite the couple for counselling but when the man is in South Africa we invite his relatives to resolve it as a family issue,” she says.

But some cases do not have a proper resolution, Malawi News can report. Elaine Imedi’s experience is one such case. It happened in 2014.

Immediately after her husband’s burial in the area of T/A Tambala, her in-laws sent her packing.

According to Imedi, the incident was so traumatising she is often reluctant to talk about it.

She did push the matter to court of law where the worst was to come as it was found all the property the family has was registered in the deceased brother’s name. This meant a car, a house, shops and other properties were shared among the deceased’s relatives.

“This was the most traumatising moment of my life since I did not know that my husband had registered our property in the name of his brother. We tried to push for legal remedy but it was too late; so I had to move on,” she explains.

So why do the men do this?

Aman Mussa from Mwawa Village in T/A Kasumbu and living in South Africa says infidelity is the main reason why husbands opt to have their property registered in the name of their relatives instead of their wives.

“A lot of women back home are not faithful making it hard for us to trust them with our money or property.

“We have seen men working hard here only to find out that the wife is cheating with another man. So to avoid losing both property and wife, we put our property in the name of a relative,” he told Malawi News from his base in South Africa.

According to Mussa, unless the women change their behaviour, men from the area who travel to South Africa shall also not change but continue to register their property in their relatives’ names.

“Here [in South Africa], the going is tough and for someone back home to be enjoying with other men is a concern as well; so we cannot be working hard for some other man to also be enjoying from our hard earned money,” he says.

Lawrence Puliti, Coordinator for Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) in the district, says the practice shows how ignorant people are especially on laws which are supposed to protect property rights for women and children.

He says the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act, for example, states that all the property acquired while the couple is together has to be shared.

Puliti says ignorance of this law is among the factors fuelling gender-based violence in the district.

He further says women fail to access justice on such malpractices due to a number of reasons.

“Our office does not have the actual figures of the cases but this is happening in the communities. It is just unfortunate that these women and children fail to access justice at the courts due to corruption and that organisations working in such cases are not adequately funded,” he says.

Women’s rights activist Beatrice Mateyu says it is unfortunate that these women who fall victim to such practices are not socially and culturally empowered to demand accountability and fair practice from their husbands.

She says husbands deny their wives property rights so that they can control them.

In a summary of her study, ‘Women’s inheritance rights in Malawi: The role of District Assemblies’, Asiyati Chiweza, gender and governance researcher and lecturer in the University of Malawi, says legal reforms are increasingly seen as essential in combating various constraints women face in relation to property and inheritance.

She however adds that laws alone are not adequate to address experiences of women in property and inheritance issues.

“While human rights legislation plays an important role in the upholding of women’s rights, the realisation of these entitlements requires that critical attention be paid to the institutions and administrative systems that are responsible for implementation. It is through these operations of the state that people experience law as practice,” she says.

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