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Deafening cry from the elderly

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Andrew Kavala

Seventy-seven-year-old Christina Mphande of Mandala Zimba Village, Traditional Authority (TA) Kampingo Sibande in Mzimba District, will live to remember her narrow escape from the hands of an unforgiving community at the graveyard at Eswazini on December 2, 2022.

On the day she was mourning the death of her daughter-in-law who died in South Africa on November 12, Mphande eventually turned into a suspect with the community suspecting her of having bewitched the daughter-in-law.

The body of the daughter-in-law had been repatriated back home and burial was slated for December 2.

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“As burial ceremony was taking place, a group of people pulled the victim and forced her to bury the dead body alone as she was being accused of having bewitched her in-law.

“The victim was forced to start burying the dead alone but was assisted by her sister. In the process, some people assaulted the victim to the extent that she lost two teeth,” Mzimba Police Station Public Relations Officer Peter Botha said.

Even more traumatising was the fact that Mphande was shoved to the ground and ended up falling into the grave where a coffin had been lowered.

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She was pulled out by her sister and daughters.

“One of the youths beat me so hard that I lost two of my teeth in the process. I lost control and fell into the grave. I saw darkness and knew that I was gone,” Mphande said.

As all this was happening, community members were jeering. Some community members even took a video of the scenes and shared it on social media.

Three days later, police arrested 20 people in connection with the fracas.

Mphande must have been lucky to survive such a torture. Others before her never made it out.

Among many people, memories of the mayhem that happened at Chimbalanga Village in TA Dambe in Neno in January 2016 are probably still fresh.

There, an angry mob killed four elderly people suspected of bewitching a 17-year-old girl who was struck by lightning.

Since the start of 2022 alone, statistics show that over 20 people have been killed for being suspected of practising witchcraft.

According to the Malawi Network of Older Persons Organisation (Manepo), over 80 cases of abuse has been recorded this year.

Manepo Executive Director Andrew Kavala says it appears Malawians are very angry with so many issues and venting their anger on wrong people.

According to Kavala, it is a mere transfer of frustration and anger to wrong targets

“Manepo wishes to remind all Malawians that it is very unbecoming for one, let alone older persons, to live under a cloud of suspicion. We passed the era when one could do what it pleases, without being restrained by the muscle of the law.

“It is imperative that everyone should use proper channels to address concerns, for one cannot concurrently play the roles of an accuser, prosecutor and judge,” Kavala said.

Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

The Malawi’s Witchcraft Act of 1911 does not recognise the existence of witchcraft and states that it is an offence to accuse anyone of practising witchcraft.

The 2016 National Policy for Older Persons recognises the duty of the State to protect the rights of older persons in a country grappling with changes in traditional family values and the erosion of social support structures.

Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation Executive Director Michael Kaiyatsa described the continued victimisation of the elderly over witchcraft allegations as unfortunate.

“We are hoping that there would be speedy justice to send a strong message to others that violence against people accused of witchcraft is unacceptable,” Kaiyatsa said.

Malawi Council of Churches Board Chairperson Fanuel Magangani has described to the torture of Mphande as unsettling, undeserved and not appropriate.

“The council is shocked that this is also coming within the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, when Malawi and the world are engaged in advocating for a safer nation and a world free of any form of violence,” Magangani said.

On April 12 last year, President Lazarus Chakwera ratified the African Union Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Older Persons in Africa.

By ratifying the protocol, Chakwera committed to protecting and upholding the rights of older persons.

The protocol was concluded and adopted on January 31, 2016 by the 26th ordinary session of the assembly in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and left to member states to sign, ratify and accede.

“I, Dr Lazarus Chakwera, President of the Republic of Malawi, for and on behalf of the Republic of Malawi, do hereby notify and confirm, in accordance with article 25 paragraph 1, that the Republic of Malawi accedes to the protocol,” the communication reads.

But as late renowned South African human rights activist Desmond Tutu once said, “as we get older our rights do not change”.

And as researcher Carrie Leigh Byrne put it in her paper ‘Hunting the Vulnerable: Witchcraft and the Law in Malawi’, the gross violation of human rights that is witchcraft accusation necessitates urgent international attention.

According to Byrne, not only must laws be bolstered to offer maximum protection for the accused, legal practitioners and community members need to be held accountable to these laws.

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