Women’s Land Rights and Land Tenure Reforms in Malawi: What Difference Does Matriliny Make?


Kaarhus, Randi. 2010. “Women’s Land Rights and Land Tenure Reforms in Malawi: What Difference Does Matriliny Make?” Forum for Development Studies 37 (2): 171-92.

Author: Randi Kaarhus


Present-day Malawi is, like a number of other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, involved in land-tenure reform processes aimed at the formalisation of 'customary' land rights through the registering of individual (family) titles. These reform processes also affect women's land rights in areas where land tenure has traditionally been based on matrilineal rules and practices, which is the case in southern and central Malawi. While formalisation of customary land rights as a 'bridge' to development for poor subsistence farmers has been a contested issue in multidisciplinary debates for several years, the question of women's land rights under matrilineal tenure arrangements has so far not been a topic of much debate. This article gives an account of historical processes in Malawi from the late nineteenth century onwards, seeking to describe shifting relations with regard to women's 'transferable interest' in land. It is argued that consecutive constructions of matriliny - first as 'backward', then as a 'puzzle' and a hindrance for (men's) investments in agriculture - constitute a necessary backdrop for an analysis of women's matrilineal rights in land today. Different understandings of matriliny have implications for women's position under current tenure reform initiatives. A re-examination of an earlier land-tenure reform, the World Bank sponsored Lilongwe Land Development Programme (LLDP) implemented in the period 1960s-1980s, provides an empirical example suggesting that new reforms - in spite of non-discriminatory policy objectives - may contribute to the marginalisation of women's rights to increasingly scarce and contested land resources.

Keywords: land rights, formalization, tenure reform, women's rights, gender relations, matriliny, Malawi

Topics: Gender, Women, Gendered Power Relations, Land Tenure, Rights, Land Rights, Women's Rights Regions: Africa, Southern Africa Countries: Malawi

Year: 2010

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