Our Daughters Inherit our Land, but our Sons Use Their Wives’ Fields: Matrilineal-Matrilocal Land Tenure and the New Land Policy in Malawi


Peters, Pauline E. 2010. “Our Daughters Inherit our Land, but our Sons Use Their Wives’ Fields: Matrilineal-Matrilocal Land Tenure and the New Land Policy in Malawi.” Journal of Eastern African Studies 4 (1): 179-199.

Author: Pauline E. Peters


Renewed efforts in recent years to reform land tenure policy in Sub-Saharan African countries have - in some cases - included provisions aimed at improving women's land rights. The premise of such provisions is that women's land rights under customary tenure are fragile, threatened, and/or in the process of being undermined. The matrilineal-matrilocal areas in Southern Malawi described here present a counter case. Only daughters are the heirs of their matrilineage's land, while sons use their wives' land or, in special circumstances, have temporary use of fields belonging to their female matrikin. This pattern has prevailed in the face of a long and continuing history of prejudice against matriliny. Now, a new land policy, not yet passed into law, includes an explicit aim to protect and improve land rights for women. Yet the means selected by the policy - land inheritance by both sons and daughters and extension of greater authority to traditional leaders in the administration of land - will be likely, if implemented, to have opposite effects in matrilineal-matrilocal areas.

Keywords: matrilineal-matrilocal, land tenure, settlement schemes, gender equity, land policy


  • This article is significant in that it confronts the notion that women’s land rights are always “secondary” and “fragile” through examining a matrilineal-matrilocal area where women have the dominant position in land inheritance, instead of the well documented cases of patrilineal-patrilocal areas, where men tend to be in control of land allocation. It highlights the need to consider how land policies intended to strengthen the tenure security of women can, in certain locations, serve to decrease tenure security in areas where women already have a dominant position in land administration. However in arguing that the policy will have a negative impact on women’s control over land rights in matrilineal areas, Peters neglects the positive effects that the new land law will have in improving the tenure security of men in matrilineal areas, increasing gender equity in land rights.
  • Peters defines matrilineal and matrilocal principles: “that is, inheritance and succession run through the female line so that children are members of their mother's lineage, the heir to a male authority holder is his sister's son, and, on marriage, husbands move to their wives' village.” (182)
  • Impact of policy on matrilineal areas: The policy provides for all children, irrespective of sex, to inherit land from their parents. Paradoxically, if actually implemented, this would greatly reduce women's existing rights in matrilineal-matrilocal areas by including sons as equal heirs, even though it may provide more rights for some women in patrilineal-patrilocal areas.
  • Responding to claims that policy would enhance gender equity in land acquisition in both patrilineal and matrilineal social systems, the author says it "appears laudable. However, not only would such changes be a 'departure from existing norms and practices' and hence likely to stimulate 'esistance', but, if put into practice, they would fundamentally reshape kinship and residence patterns and the multiple social relations involved therein.” (191)


“In the many domains of life governed by kinship in this matrilineal-matrilocal area, women exercise considerable authority alongside their brothers. Thus, the brother who is selected as the mwini mbumba is consulted by his sisters in times of important decisions, such as the treatment of an illness, marriage disputes, funeral arrangements, and so on. But he works closely with his sisters in deciding these matters even though he announces the final decision. Beyond these kinship and village domains, however, male authority is the norm in Malawi, and women are largely marginalized.” (184)

“The loss to women which has been documented in other countries undergoing registration and titling of land, would be doubly problematic in Malawi because, in the name of improving women's secure access to land, as currently formulated it will dispossess women in matrilineal-matrilocal areas who currently have highly secure, indeed privileged, rights in comparison with men's.” (194)

Topics: Gender, Women, Men, Gendered Power Relations, Patriarchy, Gender Equality/Inequality, Gender Equity, Land Tenure, Rights, Land Rights, Property Rights, Women's Rights Regions: Africa, Southern Africa Countries: Malawi

Year: 2010

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