|Hunting the vulnerable: Witchcraft and the law in Malawi|
|Written by Carrie Byrne (1) Thursday, 16 June 2011 05:05|
A belief in witchcraft permeates deep into the psyche and consciousness of many African people. This belief has become increasingly pervasive since the introduction of colonialism onto the continent. In most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, this belief is ingrained in popular mentality and informs and underscores social, political and cultural beliefs and practices.(2) These beliefs typically involve the notion that witchcraft is evil and that suspected ‘witches’ are to blame for “misfortune, disease, accident, natural disaster and death.”(3) As a result, ‘witch-hunts’ have become an epidemic in the region. These attacks are a way to deal with what certain community members perceive as a threat to their community’s safety and well-being. Oftentimes, witchcraft accusations are based on no more than hearsay and speculation. Those violently targeted through these accusations most frequently belong to the most vulnerable groups in society: the elderly, women, children, orphans and albinos.(4) Given that the belief in witchcraft features throughout all tiers of society and is exacerbated by ambiguous or out-dated laws, those accused of practicing witchcraft are further targeted by the legal system as well as by the very people that are mandated to protect them – the police.
In recent months, the local and international media spotlight fell on the plight of more than eighty suspected witches (mostly elderly women) currently incarcerated in Malawian jails. Under Malawian laws, witchcraft is not recognised. The arrest of these women on the grounds of witchcraft is controversial and has incited fierce debate and opposition from various quarters. This CAI paper explores the issue of witchcraft, witchcraft accusations and witch-hunts in Malawi, focusing specifically on the gendered nature of witchcraft accusations, as well as the complex legal issues surrounding the issue.
Witchcraft in Malawi
Although witchcraft is a complex and subjective term, ‘a witch’ may be broadly defined as: “...a human being who secretly uses supernatural power for nefarious purposes. Witchcraft, then, is the practice of secretly using supernatural power for evil – in order to harm others or to help oneself at the expense of others.”(5) Conceptually, witchcraft can be seen as an attempt by people to explain misfortune and negative events and provides an explanation to the ‘why me?’ question people ask about such events. However, it should also be recognised that, in Africa, witchcraft is a “real belief system and one that is very much rooted in the popular mentality of people.”(6) According to Michela Wrong, contemporary understandings of witchcraft are premised on community paranoia and reflect how many Africans view their surroundings and rationalise anxieties over living standards and socio-economic status.(7)
Witches are believed to be wicked and to act out of jealousy, at the expense of their ‘victims’, and to have an inherent propensity for causing harm.(8) They are believed to use various forms of harmful magic to inflict misfortune on their victims.(9) Reports of witchcraft feature daily in Malawian media. A witch (or wizard) is typified by certain common traits in this country: witches and wizards are primarily seen as possessing the supernatural ability to make people sick or cause death. It is also believed that they are cannibals who prey on the bodies of the dead. Witches are frequently said to possess the ability to fly – ‘witchcraft planes’ are regularly cited as being used to take their victims to either Zimbabwe or South Africa at night. Witches and wizards are believed to be able to become invisible or shape-shift: most frequently into hyenas, owls or cats.(10) Witches in Malawi are most commonly accused of kidnapping children at night to teach them witchcraft, which leads to community outrage and fear.
Witchcraft accusations and witch-hunts in Malawi
Witchcraft accusations in Africa are on the rise and are commonly linked to extreme violence and persecution. Persons accused of witchcraft are often subjected to physical abuse, their property and belongings vandalised or burnt,(11) forced to undergo dangerous religious ceremonies (12) or even killed. Victims are furthermore subjected to discrimination and many suspects of witchcraft are excommunicated, leaving them vulnerable and isolated. Witchcraft accusations and the associated violence are grave threats to human dignity and safety and those accused of it suffer severe human rights violations.(13)
Witchcraft accusations are a complex phenomenon in Malawi, yet many commonalities exist with patterns of witchcraft accusations in other Southern African countries. Communities are often motivated to start a witch-hunt by little more than claims by young children that they are being taught witchcraft by elderly women – one of the most frequent witchcraft allegations in the country.(14) Other allegations include unsubstantiated claims that witches are to blame for disease, death and other misfortunes such as natural disasters. The phenomenon is further exacerbated by a strong belief that the ability to identify suspected witches is held exclusively by traditional healers through various methods of divination – who are then afforded the right to identify as well as ‘cleanse’ suspected witches through the administering of traditional medicine and other harmful cleansing rituals.
The issue of witchcraft accusations is further exacerbated by charismatic Christian religious leaders who “use their prejudicial notions of witchcraft as a manifest form of satanic evil to encourage their followers to find (accuse) and convert suspected witches.”(15) The result is that the notion of Satanism is incorporated into more traditional beliefs around witchcraft. The Roman Catholic Church, the most influential Christian denomination in Malawi, has stated that witchcraft is real and that it is investigating solutions to the problem of witchcraft for its followers (one of these solutions being considered is exorcism).(16) The result has been an increase in witch hunts and accusations in the country.
Those targeted are frequently poor and marginalised, but more affluent and educated members of society have also been accused of witchcraft. People are most often accused of witchcraft in close-knit communities where “jealousies and tensions abound.”(17) Those accused are usually well-known by the accuser and apparently wish the accuser ill. Witchcraft accusations have historically been viewed as gender specific. Recent reports have shown that those accused come from varied demographic and social backgrounds. Nevertheless, elderly women and children (often orphans), being from the most vulnerable sectors of society, remain the group most frequently accused of witchcraft and consequentially, most frequently attacked.(18) Women with financial and/or other forms of power threaten patriarchal thought-systems. From this angle, witch-hunts are a means by which men “assert and reassert their power and control over women’s independence, bodies, sexuality and individuality.”(19)
In Malawi, elderly women still constitute the group most frequently accused of witchcraft. Witches are commonly identified as “older women who are typically bad-tempered, irritable, greedy, eccentric and quarrelsome.”(20) In most instances, “the physical appearance of these women, attributable to age, seems to be taken as an indicator of the presence of malevolence.”(21) In the Malawian case, the fact that elderly (often widowed) women (with a certain degree of financial independence) as well as solitary women with a certain degree of power (be it an educational, financial or vocational advantage) are perceived as secretly evil and consequently attacked, raises human rights and specifically women’s rights questions and calls for specific protection of these women on the grounds of gender-based violence.
The law and witchcraft in Malawi
Malawi’s Witchcraft Act was put into place by Malawi’s colonial power in 1911.(22) The intention of the Act was to, “eradicate what the colonialists referred to as dangerous practices such as trial by order, the use of charms and witchcraft itself.”(23) At core, the act denies the existence of witchcraft. This implies that:
The efficacy of the Act has been called into question and appealed by Malawian citizens and advocacy groups. The act is still under review by the Malawi Law Commission. In Malawi, as in most other African countries, citizen anxiety over witchcraft is widespread, and citizens have been calling on government to “protect them against occult aggression.”(25) They are asking for witchcraft to be recognised as real and criminalised. To those Malawians who believe that witchcraft is a real practice and threat, the Act is considered foreign and its assumptions as a consequence, do not make sense. By denying that witchcraft exists, and by making witchcraft accusations an offence, this ‘foreign’ law fails to address the “realities in their communities.”(26)
Others claim that the act fails to protect innocent victims of witchcraft accusations. Although the act aims to protect victims by denying the existence of witchcraft and by punishing witchcraft accusers, the effect is that communities resort to mob justice in order to ‘settle the score’ precisely because they know that, by law, accusing somebody of witchcraft is a punishable offence.(27)
The possible recognition of witchcraft in the country and criminalisation of the practice have been explored by various authors. Potential benefits include a feeling of security amongst citizens and a resultant increase in perceived legitimacy of the government. Another benefit of the criminalisation of witchcraft would be the recognition of African belief systems, thus further strengthening legitimacy of the law with regard to its congruence with the beliefs of the people of Malawi. However, through normal legal procedures, the vexing issue of providing evidence for witchcraft arises. Witchcraft, at its core, “involves the use of supernatural or non-natural powers”(28) and is therefore “undetectable by ordinary methods and impossible to prove in any principled way.”(29)
Cameroon has been used as an example of the difficulties of a law that criminalises witchcraft in practice (witchcraft has been criminalised in the country since 1960). Concerns abound relating to the fact that, most often, the testimonies of traditional healers alone have led to the conviction of suspected witches. It is frequently these traditional healers that bring to the attention of the state those accused of witchcraft. As some observers suggest, “courts, in sum, have been heavily criticised for irrationality and arbitrariness.”(30) Acknowledging the dangers of witchcraft by law could also further reinforce the persecution of suspected witches through legitimising the victimisation of suspected witches through legal recognition of its existence thus leading to further victimisation and discrimination backed up by law.
A major concern for both Malawian and International Human rights activists and organisations is the enactment of the law (in practice) as it currently stands. Whilst the 1911 Act still holds and Witchcraft is not recognised by Malawian law, both the courts and police fail to protect the victims of witchcraft accusations. Those accused of witchcraft are frequently incarcerated, despite their denial of practicing witchcraft. In the (rare) case where suspects have been prosecuted due to their own admission of guilt in practicing witchcraft, “reported testimony is either irrational or coerced through torture or threat.”(31) Despite the fact that witchcraft accusations are the only legally punishable offence, it is, in fact, the very victims of these accusations (who should be protected by law) who are charged and punished under the witchcraft act. Many of these prosecutions occurred despite the fact that evidence shows the victims to have pleaded ‘not guilty.’(32) Many of those charged with practicing witchcraft are accused, not of witchcraft, but of “conduct likely to cause breach of peace.”
According to this charge, “Every person who is in any public place and conducts himself in a manner likely to cause a breach of peace shall be liable to a fine of K50 and to imprisonment for three months.”(33) This charge is problematic and difficult to prove, yet suspected witches are incarcerated based on little more than one child's or other villager’s accusation. According to George Thindwa, spokesperson for the Association of Secular Humanism (ASH), approximately 80 elderly women are, at present, unlawfully being held in Malawian jails under the suspicion of witchcraft. Their prison sentences have been set at between four and six years. Witchcraft is currently one of the most common crimes allegedly committed by women in state custody, most of them elderly women.(34) According to Thindwa, “the problem is that our police and our courts... most of them are witchcraft believers and this belief is very strong here in Malawi.”(35)
The Human Rights Consultative Committee, a non-governmental organisation stresses the need for a “proper normative legal position on witchcraft.”(36) Thindwa agrees that steps should be taken to strengthen existing law and hold officials and policemen more accountable to these laws. As it stands, Malawi’s legal system fails to protect those suspected of witchcraft. Instead, it facilitates and exacerbates the victimisation and abuse of the most vulnerable members of Malawian society – especially elderly women.
The gross violation of human rights that is witchcraft accusation necessitates urgent international attention. 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. In order to better understand the concerns of communities and foster constructive communication with the aim of eradicating harmful practices relating to witchcraft beliefs, this collaboration is essential. Witch hunting needs to be ‘framed’ in relation to “place, economic elements, psychosocial motivations and gender power” and communities need to be sensitised to the “violent aspects of witchcraft beliefs.”(37) More generally, feminist activists must continue working together to change the patriarchal status quo in their communities so that women are more involved in decision-making procedures in their communities.(38) Change needs to come from a variety of different agents if the cycle of abuse and discrimination of witchcraft accusations is to be halted.
(1) Contact Carrie Byrne through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Rights in Focus Unit (