Belief in witchcraft costs the lives of elderly women in Malawi


Attacks on the elderly are on the rise in Malawi, often under the pretext of witchcraft. Survivor Christian Mphande lived to tell her story, but there has been a worrying rise in elder abuse. Source: Charles Mpaka/IPS
  • by Charles Mpaka (blantyre)
  • Inter Press Service

While the two elderly sisters were engaged in the task traditionally performed by men in Malawi, someone in the crowd kicked one of the women, Christian Mphande, and sent her into the open grave.

What was their crime?

A young woman related to the two had died and people in the village accused 77-year-old Mphande of murdering the young woman through witchcraft.

To punish her, Mphande was forced to bury the dead, aided by the sister. She was mistreated, her possessions, such as livestock, confiscated and she was banished from the village.

It was yet another incident in Malawi’s rising cases of harassment of the elderly.

Mphande is alive – now she lives away from home but in the precinct, likely to forever wrestle with nightmares from her experience and live with the physical evidence of a hole in her gums after she lost a few teeth in the mob attack .

But in Malawi, several elderly people have died at the hands of gangs. According to the Malawi Network of Older Persons Organizations (MANEPO), a coalition of human rights organizations in the country, five elderly women were killed between January and February 2023.

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

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

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

The main factors behind this terror is what he describes as “unfounded belief in witchcraft and magic”, which he says some people blame for their personal misfortunes.

Colonial witchcraft law

Malawi is governed by the Witchcraft Act, which was enacted 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 dangerous, some practices, such as trial by trial, the use of spells and witchcraft itself.

In fact, the law assumes that witchcraft does not exist. Therefore, it is an offense for anyone to claim that someone practices witchcraft.

It is also an offense for anyone to claim to practice witchcraft.

In 2006, the government established a Special Law Commission on Witchcraft Act 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.

Indeed, in a report, the Special Law Commission 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 just because the practice is based on mere belief. ”

“Consequently, the committee concludes that the existence of witchcraft should not be regarded as a questionable but convincing (thing),” said the committee’s chairman, Judge Robert Chinangwa, during a presentation of its report in 2021.

But human rights groups rejected the Commission’s recommendations for reviewing the law. In a joint statement, the organizations state that a witch or wizard is, by definition, someone who secretly uses supernatural powers for malicious purposes.

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

“It is good law practice that in order to convict someone of a criminal offence, the prosecution must have proved their case beyond any doubt.

“Witchcraft, however, uses 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 there has been no conclusion. That is to say, Malawi’s fight against abuse of the elderly on witchcraft charges is at the intersection between a strong belief in witchcraft on the one hand and the fact that there would be no evidence for its existence in a court of law if reviewed.

This belief in witchcraft compromises the efforts of the Malawi police to clamp down on the abuse of the elderly, said national police spokesman Peter Kalaya.

“Our biggest challenge is that we work hard to enforce this law in a society where the majority believe that witchcraft exists. So there is great resistance,” says Kalaya to IPS.

The situation of the police is further exacerbated by the fact that cases of abuse of older women in most cases take place in rural locations far from the nearest police stations. According to Kalaya, this sometimes negatively affects the police response to quickly rescue victims and arrest perpetrators.

He goes on to point out how the police sometimes evade betrayal of the witchcraft law.

“Most of the abuses faced by older people fall under the general crime of mafia justice, such as being beaten and killed, having their homes and property burned down, and being subjected to verbal abuse,” he explains.

Wycliffe Masoo, director of Disability and Elderly Rights at the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC), a public body, says belief in witchcraft is not in itself to blame; it is what happens as a result of that belief that matters.

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

He says that while police are sometimes quick to apprehend and investigate suspects for abusing the elderly, sometimes the wheels of prosecution take too long and give the abuse a head start.

Legislation is already there

According to Masoo, whether Malawi is adhering to the Witchcraft Act or revising it and grappling with the daunting challenge of proving witchcraft in a court of law, the country already has some legislation in place that, if used properly, could curb mafia justice issues. on older persons.

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

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

What Malawi needs, according to MHRC, Manepo and the police, is to speed up the enactment of the Older Persons Bill into law and to invest in a formidable, coordinated mass consciousness that entails traditional, religious and judiciary leadership so that all Malawians have the rights understanding older people.

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

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

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