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Dr Bridget Matinga-Katunda

Home country: Malawi

Year of enrolment: 2010

Graduation date: December 2015

Department: Sociology

Supervisor: Prof Cherryl Walker

Dissertation title: ‘What’s mine?’ Rural Women’s experiences around property rights in the context of dissolved marriages in matrilineal societies: A case study of Muluwila Village in Kuntunmaje Area, Zomba district, Malawi


Granting women access to and rights in property (including housing and land) is widely regarded in the literature on gender and development as contributing significantly both towards women’s empowerment and to social development in general. In this regard it is often assumed that women in matrilineal societies enjoy strong ownership rights to land because descent follows the female line and marriage is commonly uxorilocal. However, there is a body of literature that argues that women do not enjoy strong rights over land because decision-making powers over family land are commonly vested in males within the maternal lineage, typically the woman’s uncles and/or brothers. Furthermore, men entering marriage in matrilineal communities are said to be increasingly hesitant about making meaningful investments in their wives’ land, as matrilineal custom dictates, while patriarchal values are also influencing matrilineal norms and customs to the detriment of women’s claims. Problems around the strength and security of women’s land rights in matrilineal societies are most likely to come to the fore in the context of marriage dissolution, whether through the death of a spouse, divorce or abandonment. In Malawi matrilineal forms of social organisation are widely practised but the issue of married women’s rights to matrilineal land holdings in the contemporary period is under-researched. This dissertation makes a contribution to this field by exploring the extent to which women in matrilineal communities in Malawi experience threats to or actual loss of rights to land and housing, if their marriages dissolve, through an in-depth study of the experiences of women in Muluwila village, in Zomba District in southern Malawi. Drawing on feminist standpoint theory, I have employed a mixed methods research design that included a background household survey, in-depth interviews with a selection of women in the village, key informant interviews and documentary and historical analysis. My conceptual framework was shaped by Connell’s three-fold model for gender analysis, embracing power relations, production relations and ‘affective attachments’ (or ‘cathexis’), used in combination with Bourdieu’s notions of habitus and ‘field’ to explore women’s experiences and their attempts to negotiate the complex terrain of marriage, property and customary law in a rapidly changing social and economic environment, characterised by acute land shortage. The study found that women who opt to relocate from their maternal land when they marry and settle elsewhere with their husbands, either with his kin or in a neutral place, are the most vulnerable to loss of land rights if their marriages dissolve. They are not in a strong position to assert claims to the marital property but if they go back to their maternal home, they are likely to find that their family land has been shared among their siblings and other matrikin, leaving them landless. I suggest that gender policy in Malawi needs to address the challenges facing women at both the micro level of the household and the macro level of the legal system and make recommendations for further research.Click here to download the full dissertation:

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