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Taming blood-thirsty society: Safeguarding elderly people’s rights

BEING TAKEN TO THE HOSPITAL— A Mzimba elderly woman after being rescued by police officers

TARGETED— Community members hacked an elderly woman on the head

Piles of red soil that people from Mthengeza Village, Traditional Authority (TA) Kalumo, in Ntchisi District dug in January this year, as they prepared to burry 80-year-old woman Dinna Jerison, can be seen from a distance of 50 metres.

Not even recent rains have levelled the ground.

That mound of soil is a reminder of the grotesque action that some community members took on an innocent woman they accused of practising witchcraft. That woman, Jerison, was mercilessly tortured and sent to the village’s only graveyard.

While her torturers and killers are still at large, facts of the matter are that the lone octogenarian was brutally murdered in her house, which is 30 metres from neighbouring houses.

Her mutilated body was discovered in the morning of January 28, 2023, five days after her death.

One of the villagers, Gracious Phiri, said the old woman might have been killed five days earlier.

“What made people realise that she was dead was a pungent smell that was emanating from the house,” he said.

Some of the villagers confided in The Daily Times that they suspected that those who killed the woman might have done so because there was a perception that the woman was practising witchcraft.

This is despite that the Witchcraft Act provides for the prosecution of those that accuse others of practising witchcraft.

Law enforcers have indicated that they are still investigating the issue.

“We are still investigating the issue and, once the fugitives are arrested, they will answer the charge of murder,” said Ntchisi Police Station spokesperson Yohane Tasowana.

Tasowana said they suspect that she was killed between January 25 and 27, 2023, as people in the village claimed to have last seen her on the evening of January 25, 2023.

“Postmortem results released by Ntchisi District Hospital indicated that Jerison died due to head injuries and loss of blood,” he said.

Malawi’s senior citizens continue to suffer various forms of abuse that include violent physical attacks and discrimination and, in some instances, the targeted older men and women have suffered brutal deaths.

They also endure socio-ecological violence including spending much of the day searching for cheap fertiliser under the Affordable Inputs Programme (AIP).

They also spend a long time on the queue when listed as Social Cash Transfer Programme beneficiaries.

It is a situation that saddens Malawi Network of Older Persons’ Organisations Executive Director Andrew Kavala.

“Apart from being subjected to violence, elderly people struggle to access AIP commodities. A good number of them are even excluded from the Social Cash Transfer Programme. There is nothing to celebrate, when it comes to the treatment that elderly people are subjected to,” Kavala said.

He, however, commends the government for including some elderly people in the Social Cash Transfer Programme.

“We are happy that some are benefitting from the initiative but this doesn’t stop us from demanding that a specific pension scheme for the elderly be established,” Kavala said

The church, it seems, is also concerned with the plight of the elderly in the country.

President of the Episcopal Conference of Malawi, Archbishop George Desmond Tambala, has, for example, condemned the tendency of “unpatriotic” and heartless people who are attacking and killing older persons.

Tambala appealed to politicians and ordinary citizens to take personal responsibility in protecting elderly persons in their respective communities.

He claimed that elderly people continue to be abused by family members, community members, strangers, healthcare providers and caregivers as well as other duty-bearers at all levels.

“In most cases, we have seen banishing, burning property and killing of older persons as a deplorable state of affairs in this country. We cannot continue on this trajectory, where the elderly in our communities are subjected to torture and humiliation,” Tambala said

Tambala challenged members of Parliament (MPs) and the Church to reflect on abuses and suffering of old persons in Malawi, observing that elderly people are one of the segments of the Malawian population who face numerous human rights violations and injustices despite the country having laws and policies in place to protect them.

“I am appealing to legislators to consider fast-tracking the tabling and enacting of the Older Persons Bill to arrest attacks and killings of older persons based on witchcraft accusations,” he indicated.

Kavala explained that abuse of the country’s senior citizens has turned into a growing trend, such that, from January to March alone, his organisation has handled six cases related to the abuse of aged persons countrywide.

Malawi Human Rights Commission Executive Secretary Habiba Osman said there is a need to put a stop to the practice where the elderly are wrongly accused of practising witchcraft and then tortured or killed.

“It is not fair that they are accused of orchestrating deaths, drought, floods, diseases and other calamities. In some instances, community members descend upon older persons and start beating up them and, sometimes, the beatings become fatal or leave them with permanent disabilities.

“Houses of some elderly people are burnt. The commission is extremely overwhelmed with the number of cases being reported on the killings of elderly people due to witchcraft allegations. While there is debate on witchcraft and evidence of its existence, it’s disturbing that there is mob violence against elderly people, the latest cases being reported in Dedza, Mzimba, Kasungu and Ntcheu,” Osman said.

The executive secretary implored the government and development partners to invest in human rights education.

She added that those in charge of churches, mosques, Parliament and opinion leaders should be involved in the task.

Not that all women who are accused of practising witchcraft are killed. Some are raped and left to die from the trauma.

For example, a Chiradzulu District woman, 85, was raped by a 29-year-old man on August 31 2021.

She died last year due to trauma after being haunted by what she experienced.

Chiradzulu Police Station records indicate that Andrew Mitawa is still in custody on suspicion that he committed the offence.

Chairperson for the Social Welfare Committee of Parliament, Savel Kafwafwa, said many aged persons in Malawi, especially those who are looked after by relatives, claim physical and emotional abuse, with some claiming even to have been sexually abused.

Kafwafwa blamed the situation on high poverty levels.

“As such, there is a need for all cases involving people who are abusing the elderly to be tried right in their community in order to curb the widespread killing of older people.

“The fight against abuse, violence and killings of older persons will only become a success if all stakeholders join forces towards eliminating the vice and citizens of this country need to change their mindset and create a conducive, inclusive and age-friendly environment and society for our senior citizens,” Kafwafwa said.

Cases of death caused by the hacking of the elderly are many, such that one of the elderly women was hacked in Mzimba.

Women rights activist Emma Kaliya lamented that the majority of those who are tortured and even killed on suspicion that they are practising witchcraft are women.

“There is a gender dimension to the attacks. As such, community members, chiefs and the Malawi Police Service need to pull efforts together in a bid to contain the alarming increase and escalation of such crimes,” Kaliya pointed out.

An Amnesty International report on the magnitude of the killing of the elderly in the country indicates that attacks and killings targeting minority groups such as older persons and persons with albinism in Malawi are largely being fuelled by systematic failures in the country’s criminal justice system, which leave these vulnerable groups at the mercy of criminal gangs.

Amnesty International points out that older persons and other vulnerable groups deserve to see justice for these vile and hateful crimes against them.

Amnesty has also bemoaned the slow pace of investigations and prosecutions in courts of law.

“Killing, hacking and raping is [akin to] denying the right to life for the elderly, which is a basic human right that needs to be respected and upheld at all times.

“All law enforcement agencies in the country should take serious measures to not only protect these innocent souls but also find a lasting solution to this growing problem,” the report reads.

Otherwise, before natural forces such as wind and rains level the piles of red soil on Jerison’s grave, other graves of innocent elderly people accused of practising witchcraft may be dug elsewhere. One wonders for how long?

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