The mound of red earth beneath which Isaac Mang’ombe lay was still fresh when his relatives stormed his house and took away everything he and his widow had toiled for.
“Our brother died suddenly in 2014 and we suspected she had a hand in his death. We were angry and resolved to take away everything in his house,” recalls 45-year-old Mang’ombe’s cousin, Patrick Chiusiwa.
He confesses that as the burial ceremony approached the final stages, in Mgombe Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Mwansambo in Nkhotakota, his mind was filled with plans on how to punish Kambombo Banda in her already hopeless situation.
The 35-year-old widow had been married to her husband for 11 years with three daughters between them, the eldest having turned seven in the year of her father’s death.
“We lived a happy life together. My husband used to save and invest any coin he would lay his hands on for the sake of our daughters. In 2014, he started buying iron sheets for a house we were to build in his home village,” Banda says with sore nostalgia.
Mang’ombe’s death summoned his relatives’ true colours. They swiftly took away any valuable item including kitchen utensils, leaving Banda and her children destitute.
“We also stopped her from farming on the piece of land that they had acquired together,” Chiusiwa says.
In her desperate search for justice, Banda lodged a complaint with marriage councillors who ruled in her favour. Chiusiwa and the family, however, stuck to the grabbed property.
Another desperate knock on the village head’s door cast a flitting smile on the widow’s face. The local ruler’s order that the property should be returned to Banda and her children was defied too.
Today, Chiusiwa rues his acts and has vowed to be at the forefront in chastising those who take a deceased’s property away from his family.
Banda confirms that Chiusiwa is now a pillar in her family and readily available to provide support to her and the children.
“During lean seasons, he provides us with food so that we don’t die from hunger. He also buys school items for the children every term,” she states.
Gender experts and human rights activists say property grabbing is a new form of gendered violence against women, threatening their security across southern and east African countries such as Malawi.
The experts 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.
In Malawi, Nkhotakota is one of the districts where abuse of widows is rampant.
The trend invited the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace of the Archdiocese of Lilongwe (CCJP – Lilongwe) to roll out the ‘Enhancing access to justice for vulnerable women’ project (commonly known as primary justice) in T/As Mwadzama and Mwansambo.
The project, financially supported by the 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.
CCJP – Lilongwe project officer for access to justice project, Richard Kusseni, says 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 what they call 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.
Chiusiwa says it is through the intervention that the family changed their decision and later returned the grabbed property back to the widow and her 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 HIV-related risk factors.
Chilowetsa further discloses that the project has helped in slashing the backlog of cases on sexual and gender-based violence in the courts as well as pacifying families in the lakeshore district.
“Previously, courts in Nkhotakota were congested and overwhelmed with misdemeanour cases such as fighting over land and marital differences. Those cases are now being handled at village level by traditional leaders and village tribunals,” he says.