“Our brother died suddenly in 2014 and we, as a family, suspected that she had a hand in his death. We were so enraged that we resolved to take everything our brother had made together with the widow,” 45-year-old Patrick Chiusiwa narrated.
Chiusiwa, who comes from Kateketa Village in T/A Mwansambo in Nkhotakota, confesses that he masterminded the grabbing of property from Happiness Kambombo-Banda in Group Village Head Thanga in Traditional Authority Mwansambo in Nkhotakota.
Isaac Mang’ombe, Chiusiwa’s direct cousin and late husband of Kambombo- Banda, had just been buried in Mgombe Village in T/A Mwansambo when the incident happened.
Kambombo-Banda, now 35, and the deceased Mang’ombe had been married for 11 years and together had three children – all of them girls – whose eldest turned seven in 2014.
The widow describes late Isaac as a ‘very loving husband and father’ who would take every opportunity to invest for the family.
“We cherished each other’s time and we lived a happy life together. Isaac was working for PTC [People’s Trading Centre] and he used to save and invest any coin he would lay his hands on for the sake of our daughters. And that’s why in 2014, he started buying iron sheets so that we could build our own house back home,” she recalled.
Mang’ombe had barely realised his dream of building his beloved children and wife a modern house when God called him to eternal glory.
The poor widow anticipated that, in the absence of her loving husband and father, the family would take over the responsibility to ensure she and the children do not lack.
But she had another thinking coming. Mang’ombe had hardly started to rest in peace when his kinsmen dashed to his widow’s house where they grabbed any valuable item, including kitchen utensils.
Chiusiwa says the irate family confiscated from Kambombo-Banda anything that was valuable as a punishment for ‘killing our kin’.
“We took iron sheets, clothes of our late brother and kitchen utensils. Furthermore, we stopped her from farming on the land the two bought together,” he narrated.
Kambombo-Banda, in search for justice, lodged a complaint with marriage counsellors who ruled in her favour. But Chiusiwa and the family defied the order to return the estate to the widow.
This prompted her to take the matter to the village head who also admonished the family for perpetrating violence against a woman and children.
The village head, too, ordered that the family must return the items to the widow and her children.
“But we put our feet on the ground and challenged that we would never return them,” Chiusiwa explained.
Gender experts and human rights activists say property grabbing is another form of gender violence against women, threatening the security of women across Southern and East African countries such as Malawi.
They say forced evictions are often accompanied by further acts of violence, including physical and mental harassment, and abuse.
Widows are particularly vulnerable, partly as a result of weakened customary practice and social safety nets that used to provide support to widowed women and their children.
Defending their property has cost some women their lives, while other women have lost their shelter and source of livelihoods, and have become destitute. The harassment and humiliation that often accompany property grabbing further strip women of their self-esteem, affecting their ability to defend their rights.
Additionally, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations Fund Population Agency (UNFPA) report of 1995 states that customary inheritance laws, which allocate a deceased man’s assets to his parents and siblings, place wives at a distinct economic disadvantage.
In Malawi, Nkhotakota is one of the districts where these practices are rampant. And in an effort to address the problem, Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace of the Archdiocese of Lilongwe (CCJP Lilongwe) has rolled out Enhancing Access to Justice for Vulnerable Women (commonly known as primary justice among community members) in T/As Mwadzama and Mwansambo.
The project, which receives financial support from Charles Stewart-Mott Foundation, is aimed at enhancing access to justice for women and children through improving the quality and accessibility of primary justice system.
Project Officer (Access to Justice Project), Richard Kusseni, discloses that the major objective of the project 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.
Kusseni says through the project, they facilitated the formation of and strengthened the capacity of village tribunals, which are reviewing cases bordering on property grabbing and violation of the rights of women and children in the district.
The project has also trained community-based educators (CBEs) and formed Start Awareness Support Action (SASA) groups, which are engaging communities and families to prevent intimate partner violence and promote gender equity.
SASA is a phased community mobilisation intervention, which seeks to have participatory, gender transformative violence prevention programmes that can both impact levels of intimate partner violence and reduce HIV-related risk behaviours.
“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 explained.
Chiusiwa says it is through this avenue that the family changed their decision and later returned the grabbed property back to the widow and children.
He says after every effort Kambombo-Banda tried to get property back had failed, she lodged a complaint with CBEs and the SASA group in the area.
“The CBEs and the SASA group told us in detail the danger that lies ahead of us if we continued to stick to the deceased estate. They told us about the laws. We eventually realized that our actions were a result of ignorance of the law,” confesses Chiusiwa.
Chiusiwa says he is now a reformed man and is ready to go round the country to disseminate information about the evils of grabbing deceased estate.
“I have fully understood my role when a relative has died. Instead of grabbing the property, I am supposed to assist the family left behind by our beloved one,” he said.
Kambombo-Banda confirms that Chiusiwa is now the pillar of her family who is readily available to provide support to her and the children.
Nkhotakota First Grade Magistrate Fred Juma Chilowetsa says CBEs and SASA groups have demonstrated the potential for interventions to address inequitable gender norms and reduce important HIV-related risk factors as it is the only community mobilisation intervention in poor communities that seeks to engage communities to change harmful social norms and address power imbalances between women and men that perpetuate IPV and HIV risk.
“The programme has also built the capacity of community and traditional leaders to resolve disputes within our own social and cultural context and using our own resources. This has greatly improved the access to justice by vulnerable groups while easing pressure on the conventional courts,” he says.
“Previously, courts in Nkhotakota were congested and overwhelmed with misdemeanor cases from the communities such as fight over land and marital differences. But this is no longer the case as those cases are being handled at the village level by traditional leaders and village tribunals,” the magistrate added.