Endless torment for older persons
A witchcraft accusation that resulted in an elderly woman in Mzimba being shoved into a gaping grave still haunts her, IMAM WALI writes.
In the last two years, Malawi has documented 26 brutal killings of elderly persons.
Information from the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) indicates that the country has lost at least 100 people of advanced years since 2019.
The murders have been exacted based on witchcraft accusations with the perpetrators sometimes parading their victims in public places before finally lynching them.
“Malawi does not have a law on how to address these challenges. We just use other provisions to deal with people who abuse the elderly,” Executive Director of Malawi Network of Order Persons Organisations (Manepo), Andrew Kavala, says.
In December last year, an elderly woman Christina Mphande survived a ruthless attack from a group of funeral-goers who accused her of killing her daughter-in-law.
A video clip about the assault went viral on social media, prompting authorities to condemn it and the police to arrest the suspects.
Mphande, who moved out of the village which had been her home for decades, reveals that life has never been the same since the time of the incident.
“I am living in fear and I cannot actively participate in some activities where I am staying because many people do not want to associate with me,” she narrates.
The 2016 National Policy for Older Persons recognises the State’s duty to protect the rights of older persons in a society facing changes in traditional family values and the erosion of social support structures.
Another survivor of mob justice triggered by witchcraft accusations, Sakina Malibota from Dedza, is equally traumatised after people, including her own children, physically assaulted her after accusing her of killing her grandchild through witchcraft.
In the course of the assault, Malibota lost household property and food items.
Kavala believes the absence of a bill on older persons is frustrating efforts to end the killings, which have been reported across the country.
“The national policies and strategies we have are not helping the situation as cases continue to rise,” the Manepo boss says.
The law, if passed by Parliament, will see stiffer penalties being meted out on perpetrators of verbal, mental and physical attacks on older persons.
Kavala states that the enactment of a similar law in neighbouring Zambia has resulted in the improvement of the protection of older persons.
“We lack political will to have laws that will protect the elderly in place. They are facing all forms of violence, with some of them losing lives in the process,” he explains.
Malawi Human Rights Commission Director of Disability and Elderly Rights, Wycliffe Masso, recently bemoaned the absence of progress on cases related to attacks on the elderly.
Masso said in case of the current situation, “there is nothing to write home about”.
“People who abuse the elderly go scot-free while in some cases, those who are arrested seldom get their just desserts in time,” he said.
CHRR Executive Director Michael Kaiyatsa claims prosecuting cases linked to beliefs in witchcraft has been sluggish.
Kaiyatsa regrets that it is those who are least able to defend themselves who become victims of attacks triggered by witchcraft allegations.
CHRR’s documentation of violence on the basis of witchcraft indicates that out of over 70 cases recorded since 2019, less than 10 made it to the courts for prosecution.
Kaiyatsa suggests that State and non-State actors intensify the raising of awareness on the evils of violence based on witchcraft accusations.
“Government must put in place appropriate measures to ensure speedy access to justice for victims or survivors,” he says.
The CHRR chief further indicates that challenges at various case levels, such as investigation and prosecution, continue to hamper progress in such cases.
“We have also found that many case files, especially where murder is involved, are stuck at the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions due to funding challenges,” he says.
Kaiyatsa also suggests the speedy review of the Witchcraft Act, apparently because some cases of mob justice related to witchcraft accusations are prompted by gaps in the law.
Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates that no one should be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
But the attacks on the elderly continue in Malawi.
There is some hope in the campaigns that government, through the Ministry of Gender in collaboration with Nice has been carrying out on the impropriety of witchcraft accusations and confessions.
Humanists Malawi’s Wonderful Mkhutche suggests that the defeating of the belief in witchcraft can end the attacks.
“We have romanticised this belief for centuries, but it has no place in the modern world,” Mkhutche.
His position is against findings by a Special Law Commission on the review of the Witchcraft Act that recommended that since most Malawians believe in magic, it was better to recognise the existence of sorcery.
Minister of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare Jean Sendeza affirmed government’s commitment to protecting the elderly.
Sendeza said a National Older Persons Bill is being worked on.
“Let me take this opportunity to convey my deep sympathy to victims of abuse of the elderly. These victims are people that have greatly contributed to the building of our communities,” she said.