Blantyre — In December last year, a video clip went viral of two elderly women surrounded by a charged-up crowd and engulfed in a cloud of dust as they filled up a grave in a village in the Mzimba district in northern Malawi.
As the two elderly sisters laboured in the task, which men in Malawi traditionally handle, someone in the mob kicked one of the women, Christian Mphande, and sent 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, helped by the sister. She was assaulted, her belongings, such as livestock, confiscated, and she was banished from the village.
It was yet another incident in the spiralling cases of harassment of older persons in Malawi.
Mphande is alive – now living away from home but within the district, probably to forever grapple with nightmares of her experience and live with the physical evidence of a gap in her gums after she lost some teeth in the assault by the mob.
But several elderly have lost their lives in Malawi at the hands of mobs. Five older women were killed between January and February 2023, according to the Malawi Network of Older Persons Organisations (MANEPO), a coalition of human rights organisations in the country.
In 2022, 15 elderly women were killed and 88 harassed for various reasons, largely on accusations of witchcraft–a rise from 13 killed and 58 harassed in 2021.
MANEPO’s Country Director, Andrew Kavala, describes the abuses of elderly women as a scourge visiting the nation.
“As a society, we have failed our elderly. We have unjustified anger towards them. Whether driven by frustration due to survival failures, we are venting our anger on innocent people. This is a tragedy,” Kavala laments in an interview with IPS.
Top of the factors behind this terror is what he describes as “baseless belief in witchcraft and magic,” which, he says, some people blame for their personal misfortunes.
Colonial Witchcraft Act
Malawi has in force the Witchcraft Act, which came into existence in 1911 under British colonial rule.
According to the Malawi Law Commission, the legislation was enacted with the aim of eradicating what the colonialists considered as dangerous some practices such as trial by ordeal, the use of charms and witchcraft itself.
In effect, the Act assumes that witchcraft does not exist. That being the case, it is, therefore, an offence for anyone to allege that someone practices witchcraft.
It is also an offence for anyone to claim that he or she practices witchcraft.
In 2006, the government set up a Special Law Commission on Witchcraft Act to review the 1911 witchcraft law. 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 argue that there is no witchcraft in Malawi for the sole reason that the practice is premised upon mere belief.”
“Consequently, the commission concludes that the existence of witchcraft should not be regarded as a doubtful but conclusive (thing),” said the Commission’s chairperson, Judge Robert Chinangwa, at a presentation of its report in 2021.
But human rights organisations trashed the recommendations of the Commission for the review of the law. In a joint statement, the organisations said by definition, a witch or wizard is someone who secretly uses supernatural powers for wicked purposes.
Assuming that the law is amended to criminalise the practice of witchcraft, there would be the difficult issue of evidence, they argued.
“It is a good law practice that for one to be convicted of a criminal offence, the prosecution must have proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
“However, witchcraft involves the use of supernatural powers. Therefore, proving the allegations would be very difficult in a court of law,” they said in a joint statement.
The Majority Believe in Witchcraft
There has been no conclusion since. That is, Malawi’s fight against abuse of the elderly on witchcraft-related accusations finds itself stuck on the rough edges between strong belief in witchcraft on the one hand and, on the other, that there would be no proof for its existence in a court of law if reviewed.
This belief in witchcraft is compromising Malawi Police Service’s efforts to clamp down on the abuses against the elderly, according to national police spokesperson Peter Kalaya.
“Our main challenge is that we work hard to enforce this law [Witchcraft Act] in a society where the majority believes witchcraft exists. As such, there is great resistance [to law enforcement],” Kalaya tells IPS.
The police’s situation is worsened by the fact that, in most cases, incidents of abuse of older women occur in rural locations remote from the nearest police stations. According to Kalaya, this sometimes negatively affects police response to provide a swift rescue of victims and arrest perpetrators.
He further indicates how the police sometimes evade the treachery of the witchcraft law.
“Most of the abuses older persons face fall within the general crime of mob justice such as being beaten, killed, their houses and property being burnt and being subjected to verbal insults,” he explains.
Wycliffe Masoo, Director of Disability and Elderly Rights at the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC), a public body, says witchcraft belief in itself is not to blame; it is what happens as a result of that belief that is of concern.
“The question that remains is that if witchcraft exists, is it being practised by older persons only?” Masoo wonders.
He says while police have at times been swift in arresting and investigating suspects for abusing the elderly, the wheels of prosecution take too long sometimes and give the abuses an edge.
Legislation Already in Place
According to Masoo, whether Malawi sticks with the Witchcraft Act or reviews it and contends with the tricky challenge of proving witchcraft in a court of law, the country already has some legislation in place which, if properly used, would ably curb issues of mob justice on older persons.
For example, the Constitution prohibits discrimination of persons and guarantees “equal and effective protection against discrimination” on whatever grounds.
It guarantees human dignity, stating that “no person shall be subject to torture of any kind or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
What Malawi needs, according to MHRC, Manepo and the police, is to expedite the enactment of the Older Persons Bill into law and invest in a formidable, coordinated mass awareness that brings along traditional, religious and judicial leadership for all Malawians to understand the rights of older persons.
“This will wholesomely protect older women,” Masoo says.