In Malawi, Widows are Still Being Left Behind

There are thousands of widows worldwide with their own unique stories and journeys who are currently participating in the Global Fund for Widows’ (GFW) economic inclusion and investment initiative for widows; the WISALA. While this is a huge accomplishment, there are millions of stories that need to be heard. Our widows come from diverse backgrounds in nine countries across the globe, but widowhood is a global phenomenon, affecting almost every society, particularly in conflict zones, where it can directly affect between 50-80 percent of the adult female population.

Widows have a unique set of discrimination and challenges that they must endure. Such challenges include disinheritance, land grabbing, discrimination, and challenges with bureaucratic systems that aren’t designed with the needs of widows in mind. There are also cultural challenges, such as harmful practices that some widows must endure. The simultaneous use of customary and formal law often varies in their legal protections, which can perpetuate gender-based discrimination and leave widowed women with few paths of redress.

As we launch our Samibank project in Malawi this year, we have been reminded of the strength our widows, despite the obstacles that they have had to overcome, like Penina Chatuma, a member of the Chisomo Samibank, who lost her husband in 2002. Following the husband’s death and before the burial, the husband’s siblings went to the shared home of Penina and her husband and left with all the husband’s possessions. Penina was disinherited from the estate. After the burial, she was forcibly taken back to her original village, isolated from the life she once led.

Sophilet, another member of the Chisomo Samibank, lost her husband in 2006. While she was in mourning, her husband’s siblings demanded to start the process of estate splitting immediately. She requested to delay the process, but the siblings continued. She first went to the police who then referred her to the District Commissioner. When she arrived home with the government officials, the family had already dismantled the estate and her inheritance: they had destroyed the home and already sold the plots of land. Through the Samibank program by GFW and our in-country partner, Mawia, Sophilet has taken back control of her life and her fortune is changing for the better.

Sophilet is a victim of land-grabbing, and with most of the world being dependent on land tenure for their livelihoods and income, it is increasingly important to protect the rights of widows in securing their inheritance and ownership of land. Being landless in a rural area is a guarantee for poverty, with a large portion of the global population being reliant on individual land tenure for their livelihoods, a link that has been acknowledged to the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (Goals 1, 3, 4, and 8). An obstacle preventing the implementation of SDGs includes the large disconnect between customary and formal law, which GFW has seen in beginning its work in Malawi. The Deceased Estates Act (2011), guarantees spousal claims in the event of death. As Penina experienced, continued customary practices that perpetuate gender inequalities and violate several human rights are still a frequent occurrence. According to customary and cultural tradition, spouses and children are not entitled to any of the estate, with the husband’s relatives laying claim to it all.

Utilizing formal law in rural villages is increasingly difficult. This is due to a lack of education or awareness on rights, an inability to afford legal fees, and no access to legal resources (Goals 4, 16). These three actions need to be rectified, especially for those in rural areas, to resolve the disconnect between formal and customary law. In the process of disinheritance, widows can become even more vulnerable to a variety of rights violations, such as village leaders taking control of property, family disinheritance, and the purposeful giving of non-arable land, which is why it is so important to ensure inheritance rights and land rights are being upheld.

Through the WISALAs, these women have opened businesses, and with this programmatic intervention by GFW, we are contributing towards the achievement the Sustainable Development Goals of No Poverty (Goal 1), Good Health and Well-Being (Goal 3), Quality Education (Goal 4), and Decent Work and Economic Growth (Goal 8). Poverty reduction and wealth generation is a key aspect of the WISALAs, with money being matched in a 2:1 investment ratio, widows are able to gain resources to start their own businesses and create sustainable livelihoods: The goal of Good Health and Well-Being is developed through improved quality of life and through avoiding hazardous conditions with financial security. Quality Education is developed by the children of the widows previously being unable to attend school due to school fees, garnering new access to education through the WISALAs and developed businesses. Decent Work and Economic Growth is the founding goal of Global Fund for Widows, through empowering widows to create their own jobs and working their way out of poverty through economic empowerment.

Stories like Penina’s and Sophilet’s are far too common, with roughly 40% of our beneficiaries reporting disinheritance and 44% experiencing harmful practices. Global Fund for Widows continues to research inheritance regimes and the prevalence of disinheritance and is currently advocating for the adoption of a United Nations General Assembly Resolution to codify the rights of widows within the international system compel decision-makers to consider their needs across existing and future legal frameworks and development programming. Global Fund for Widows continues to use its expertise and lessons learned to bring the experience and voices of widows to the forefront and into global policymaking, ensuring that the lessons learned from our programmatic work is reflected in future dialogues on women’s equality and inclusion as well as SDG implementation. Our goal is to not only provide a path for widows to regain their agency and self-sufficiency, but to encourage decisionmakers to take meaningful action to prevent these human rights violations from continuing.

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