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Ugly truth about rogue, vagrancy law

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Around the world, people end up detained or incarcerated, often for prolonged periods, for non-criminal behaviour or behaviours associated with poverty.

Around the world, especially marginalised groups are at increased risk of right violations even in their interaction with the criminal justice system.

Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance (Chreaa) in 2013 conducted a survey whose results show there is massive abuse of rogue and vagrancy law in Malawi, and the law is also outdated.

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The study titled ‘No justice for the Poor’ was based on findings of a survey on arrests that were made relating to offences of idle and disorderly persons and rogue and vagabond in Blantyre.

We are living in a world where survival is reserved for the fittest.

While some made it to class and succeeded to secure white-collar jobs, others, for particular reasons, did not, hence pushed into other means of eking a living.

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This is the case of many sex workers out there.

But sex workers are among prime victims of the rogue and vagabond law in the country.

But one would want to know what exactly is rogue and vagabond? On what basis is one charged with this offence?

Peter Mchiza, Assistant Public Relations Officer for the Southern Region Police, says rogue and vagabond is a law which gives the police the mandate to apprehend anybody who is just moving around without any tangible reason, especially at night.

Mchiza says, as police, they are strict about this law such that when they meet people loitering, they arrest them and open a case for them in court.

Of course, Section 184 (C) of the Penal Code describes a rogue and vagabond as every person found in or upon or near any premises or any place adjacent thereto or in any public place at such time under such circumstances as to lead to the conclusion that such person is there for an illegal or disorderly purpose.

While some may argue that arresting people for rogue and vagabond reduces crime and makes society safer, sex workers say arresting people for such petty offences leaves them hopeless.

Eda Nyirenda, a sex worker plying her trade in Blantyre, and her friends, for example, do not have kind words for the police due to experiences they go through and continue to encounter courtesy of rogue and vagabond law.

“I have personally faced a number of challenges with this law. In the days when my friends and I are going to work —we call it work because it gives us money to take care of our homes and ourselves— we meet the police and they tell us to bail ourselves out, they tell us to sleep with them for free,” Eda says.

Another sex worker shared Eda’s sentiments, saying there are times when the police walk in a bar or sometimes in a room at a rest house and only arrest the female leaving the male scot-free, saying: “You are fuelling immorality in the country”.

And most sex workers say they end up sleeping with the police officers without protection.

“There is no proper arrangement and it is done in hurry, even behind a vehicle,” one sex worker says.

The revelations by sex workers lend credence to the findings of Chreaa’s study, which identified gaps in the rogue and vagabond law and that poor and marginalised groups such as sex workers have been unfairly targeted.

But what do police say about the allegations?

Mchiza vehemently denies the accusations, saying no one has ever reported such a case to the police. He says, as police, they work on reported cases not hearsay.

He says when anyone has been unfairly treated by any police officer, the victim must report the matter to police.

But some stakeholders say removing or limiting the scope of laws that legitimise and facilitate the enforcement of petty offences will provide some reprieve for such groups as sex workers.

Human rights activist Chikondi Ngwira, who has been advocating the removal of this law, says the journey to getting rid of this law has been way too long and admits it has been a gradual process.

Ngwira says, however, so far people have been educated about the vagrancy law and majority are now able to speak for themselves.

After all is said and done, the question remains, is this law important and is it serving all Malawians equally?

Malawi Law Society President, John Suzi-Banda, says this law is mainly applied to the vulnerable and it is in conflict with the Malawi Constitution.

He says the way the law is applied by the law enforcers leaves a lot to be desired.

“This law can even be described as the poor people law because, clearly, it only brings to account those that do not have cars; and those who are called prostitutes.

“We can certainly do without this law because it is very outdated; it does not serve all Malawians equally and it gives powers to the law enforcers to manipulate people with it,” he says.

Rogue and Vagabond is said to have its roots in England’s Vagrancy Act of 1824.

So as Malawi is undertaking reforms in different sectors including the Constitution, some citizens are also demanding the review of vagrancy laws.

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