Attacks on the elderly are on the rise in Malawi, often under the pretext of witchcraft.  Survivor Christian Mphande lived to tell his story, but there is a worrying increase in elder abuse.  Credit: Charles Mpaka/IPS
Attacks on the elderly are on the rise in Malawi, often under the pretext of witchcraft. Survivor Christian Mphande lived to tell his story, but there is a worrying increase in elder abuse. Credit: Charles Mpaka/IPS
  • by Charles Mpaka (blantyre)
  • Interpress service

As the two older sisters worked on the task, which men in Malawi traditionally do, someone in the mob kicked one of the women, Christian Mphande, sending her flying into the open grave.

What was their crime?

A young woman related to the two had died, and people in the village accused Mphande, 77, of killing the young woman through witchcraft.

To punish her, Mphande was forced to bury the dead, with the help of the sister. She was assaulted, her possessions, such as livestock, were confiscated and she was banished from the village.

It was yet another incident in the growing cases of harassment of elderly people in Malawi.

Mphande is alive – now living away from home but in the district, presumably to forever wrestle with nightmares of her experience and live with the physical evidence of a gap in her gums after she lost a few teeth in the assault by the mob.

But several elderly people have lost their lives in Malawi at the hands of mobs. Five elderly women were killed between January and February 2023, according to the Malawi Network of Older Persons Organizations (MANEPO), a coalition of human rights organizations in the country.

In 2022, 15 elderly women were killed and 88 harassed for various reasons, largely due to accusations of witchcraft – an increase from 13 killed and 58 harassed in 2021.

MANEPO’s country manager, Andrew Kavala, describes the abuse of older women as a scourge visiting the nation.

“As a society, we have failed our elders. We have unwarranted anger towards them. Whether driven by frustration due to survival failures, we vent our anger on innocent people. This is a tragedy,” laments Kavala in an interview with IPS.

Chief among the factors behind this terror is what he describes as “groundless belief in witchcraft and magic,” which, he says, some people blame for their personal misfortunes.

Colonial Witchcraft Act

Malawi has enacted the Witchcraft Act, which came into force in 1911 under British colonial rule.

According to the Malawi Law Commission, the legislation was passed with the aim of eradicating what the colonialists considered dangerous certain practices such as trial by ordeal, the use of charms and witchcraft itself.

In fact, the law assumes that witchcraft does not exist. In this case, it is therefore a crime for someone to claim that someone practices witchcraft.

It is also a crime for someone to claim that he or she practices witchcraft.

In 2006, the government set up a special witchcraft law commission to review the 1911 Witchcraft Act. It was in response to calls that the law is alien to the common belief in witchcraft among Malawians.

In a report, the Special Law Commission indeed found a common and strong belief in the existence of witchcraft.

“There is witchcraft or at least a belief in witchcraft among Malawians,” the report said, concluding, “It is not correct to claim that there is no witchcraft in Malawi for the sole reason that the practice is based on pure belief.”

“Therefore, the commission concludes that the existence of witchcraft should not be considered as a doubtful but conclusive (matter),” the commission’s chairman, Justice Robert Chinguwa, said at a presentation of its report in 2021.

But human rights organizations rejected the commission’s recommendations for a review of the law. In a joint statement, the organizations said by definition, a witch or sorcerer is someone who secretly uses supernatural powers for evil purposes.

Assuming the law is changed to criminalize the practice of witchcraft, there would be the difficult issue of evidence, they argued.

“It is good legal practice that in order to be convicted of a crime, the prosecutor must have proven his case beyond a reasonable doubt.

“However, witchcraft involves the use of supernatural powers. Therefore, it would be very difficult to prove the allegations in a court of law,” they said in a joint statement.

The majority believe in witchcraft

Since then, no conclusion has been reached. That is, Malawi’s fight against elder abuse on witchcraft-related charges is caught in the rough edges between strong belief in witchcraft on the one hand and on the other hand that there would be no evidence of its existence in a court of law if reviewed .

This belief in witchcraft is jeopardizing the Malawi Police Service’s efforts to crack down on elder abuse, according to national police spokesperson Peter Kalaya.

“Our main challenge is that we work hard to enforce this law in a society where the majority believe that witchcraft exists. As such, there is a lot of resistance,” Kalaya told IPS.

The police’s situation is worsened by the fact that in most cases abuses against elderly women occur in rural areas far from the nearest police stations. According to Kalaya, this sometimes negatively affects police efforts to provide quick rescue of victims and arrest perpetrators.

He further suggests how the police sometimes evade the treachery of the Witchcraft Act.

“Most of the abuses suffered by elderly people fall under the general crime of mob law, such as being beaten, killed, having their houses and property burnt down and being subjected to verbal abuse,” he explains.

Wycliffe Masoo, head of disability and elder rights at the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC), a public body, says belief in witchcraft itself is not to blame; it is what happens as a result of that belief that is troubling.

“The question that remains is, if witchcraft exists, is it practiced only by elderly people?” Masoo wonders.

He says that while the police have sometimes been quick to arrest and investigate suspects of elder abuse, prosecutorial wheels sometimes take too long and give the abusers a head start.

Legislation already in place

According to Masoo, whether Malawi adheres to the Witchcraft Act or reviews it and grapples with the tricky challenge of proving witchcraft in a court of law, the country already has some legislation in place which, if properly used, could skillfully curb issues of mob justice on older people.

For example, the Constitution prohibits discrimination against persons and guarantees “equal and effective protection against discrimination” on any basis.

It guarantees human dignity and states that “no person shall be subjected to torture of any kind or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

What Malawi needs, according to the MHRC, Manepo and the police, is to speed up the passage of the Elderly Bill and invest in a formidable, coordinated mass awareness that brings together traditional, religious and legal leadership for all Malawians to understand the rights of the elderly.

“This will protect older women in a healthy way,” says Masoo.

IPS UN agency report

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© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service