Malawi is a multiparty democracy. Constitutional power is shared between the president and the 193 National Assembly members. In May 2019 elections were conducted for president, parliament, and local councils. In February the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of an opposition challenge, annulling the 2019 presidential election (leaving intact the parliamentary and local results). On June 23, a new presidential election was conducted, and opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera won 58 percent of the vote, returning the opposition to power for the first time in 26 years. The international community and donors congratulated Malawi on the strength of its democratic institutions and peaceful transition of power.
The Malawi Police Service, under the Ministry of Homeland Security, has responsibility for law enforcement and maintenance of order. The Malawi Defense Force has responsibility for external security. The executive branch sometimes instructed the Malawi Defense Force to carry out policing or other domestic activities, such as disaster relief. The Malawi Defense Force commander reports directly to the president as commander in chief. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the Malawi Police Service committed some abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: harsh and life-threatening prison and detention center conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; significant acts of corruption; lack of investigation and accountability for violence against women; and criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct.
In some cases the government took steps to prosecute officials who committed abuses, but impunity remained a problem.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were no reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
In February 2019 Buleya Lule died while in police custody in Lilongwe, just hours after appearing in court as one of six suspects in the abduction of Goodson Makanjira, a 14-year-old boy with albinism (see section 6, Other Societal Violence or Discrimination). In a May 2019 report into Lule’s death, the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) found the deceased was tortured, and his immediate cause of death was from torture using electricity. Earlier, police arranged an autopsy that attributed his death to intracranial bleeding and hypertension. The MHRC recommended that the police officers involved be prosecuted. On July 10, 13 officers, including now suspended police commissioner Evalista Chisale, were arrested for their alleged involvement in the death of Lule. On July 31, the officers were released on bail.
Perpetrators of past abuses were occasionally punished administratively, but investigations often were delayed, abandoned, or remained inconclusive.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The constitution prohibits the use of torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment; however, police sometimes used excessive force and other unlawful practices, including torture, to extract confessions from suspects. The MHRC stated in its annual report that torture was widespread in prisons.
Reputable nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working with sex workers reported police officers regularly extracted sexual favors from sex workers under the threat of arrest.
In October 2019 the MHRC opened an independent inquiry into allegations police officers raped women and teenage girls in Msundwe, M’bwatalika, and Mpingu in Lilongwe. The alleged rapes were reportedly in retaliation for the killing of police officer Usuman Imedi by an irate mob in Msundwe. A December 2019 MHRC report stated police officers raped and sexually assaulted 18 women and girls, at least four younger than age 18. On August 13, High Court Judge Kenyatta Nyirenda ordered the government to compensate the women. The judge also ordered police authorities to release the report of the internal investigations within 30 days. As of November the report had yet to be submitted.
One allegation of sexual misconduct by a Malawian peacekeeper deployed to the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) reported in 2016 remained pending at year’s end. Two additional allegations of abuses by Malawian peacekeepers with MONUSCO–in 2016 and 2014–were reported during 2019.
According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there were three open allegations, submitted in previous years, of sexual exploitation and abuse by Malawian peacekeepers deployed to UN peacekeeping missions, including two submitted in 2018 and one submitted in 2016. As of November the government had not yet provided the accountability measures taken for all three open allegations. The 2016 case remained pending a government investigation. For one of the 2018 cases, the United Nations completed its investigation and was awaiting additional information from the government. The United Nations is still investigating the other 2018 case. All three cases allegedly involved exploitation of an adult.
Impunity was a problem in the security forces.
Prison and detention center conditions remained harsh and potentially life threatening due to overcrowding and poor sanitation; inadequate food, potable water, heating, ventilation, lighting, and health care; and torture.
Physical Conditions: An Inspectorate of Prisons report released in September 2019 indicated the Malawi Prison Service was failing to execute its rehabilitative role, while the courts were failing to exercise their sentence review powers in time. A 2018 Inspectorate of Prisons monitoring tour of prisons and police cells across the country found recurrent problems of poor sanitation, poor diet, overcrowding, prisoner abuse, poor ventilation, detention without charge beyond 48 hours, understaffing, prison staff corruption, and insufficient prisoner rehabilitation such as education and vocational training.
Overcrowding and malnutrition remained problems. In December the Malawi Prison Service reported a total prison population of 14,500 in a space with a designed holding capacity of 7,000. Police held detainees in police stations for long periods beyond the legal limit of 48 hours, which contributed to pervasive cell overcrowding.
Authorities held women separately from men but often held pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners together. In police detention centers, children were not always held separately from adults. Although inadequate, detention facilities for women and children were generally better than men’s facilities. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), however, noted significant improvements in the treatment of migrants held at prison facilities, including easier access to care for migrants with medical conditions. The IOM also claimed improved channels of communication with prison staff and easier access to detention facilities. As of October, five male migrants, four Nigerians, and one South African were in detention for immigration offenses. They were convicted, fined, and ordered deported.
As of December, according to the prison service, 15 inmates died in prison, all of natural causes.
Basic emergency medical care generally was available in the daytime but unavailable after regular working hours. Daily prison rations were meager. Officials allowed family members to provide food and encouraged inmates to grow vegetables and raise livestock in rural prisons. Malnutrition in the prison population remained a problem, however, particularly in urban prisons.
Inadequate infrastructure remained a serious problem. Prisons and detention centers had no provisions for temperature control other than wood fires.
Administration: Each prison had a designated welfare officer, some of whom had received specialized training, to receive prisoner complaints regarding conditions. The complaints process, however, was primarily verbal and informal, allowed for censorship, and provided little follow-up. Prisoners sometimes had the opportunity to complain to NGOs that recorded cases for inclusion in government advocacy and reports, but this rarely resulted in follow-up on individual cases.
The MHRC and NGOs working in prisons expressed concern regarding the human rights of detained persons. During the year the MHRC released a report that cited overcrowding, poor sanitation, and inadequate food and health care as major problems in prisons and detention centers. It stated torture was widespread and that most prisoners and detainees lived in degrading and inhuman conditions. From January to August, the MHRC received one complaint regarding the rights of prisoners. NGOs attributed the low number of submitted complaints was due to fear of retaliation by authorities.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted domestic and international NGOs and media to visit and monitor prison conditions and donate basic supplies. Domestic NGOs, the Malawi Red Cross Society, and diplomatic representatives had unrestricted access to prisons.
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention; however, the government did not always observe these prohibitions. The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court but does not provide for compensation if the person is found to have been unlawfully detained. Lack of knowledge of statutes and of access to representation meant detainees did not challenge the legality of their detention.
Police apprehended most suspects without a warrant if they had reasonable grounds to believe a crime was being or had been committed. Only in cases involving corruption or white-collar crime were arrest warrants normally issued by a duly authorized official based on evidence presented. The law provides detainees the right to have access to legal counsel and be released from detention or informed of charges by a court within 48 hours of arrest; however, authorities often ignored these rights. The use of temporary remand warrants to circumvent the 48-hour rule was widespread. Police frequently demanded bribes to authorize bail. Bail was often granted to reduce overcrowding in jails, rather than on the basis of legal merit. Relatives were sometimes denied access to detainees. There were no reports detainees were held incommunicado or held under house arrest.
Detainees who could afford counsel were able to meet with counsel in a timely manner. While the law requires the government to provide legal services to indigent detainees, such aid was provided almost exclusively to suspects charged with homicide. The Legal Aid Bureau is mandated to provide legal assistance to indigent persons. As of December 2019, the bureau had 23 lawyers and 29 paralegals in its three offices, located in the largest cities: Lilongwe, Blantyre, and Mzuzu.
The Center for Human Rights Education, Advice, and Assistance assisted 803 persons detained at police stations and in prisons through its Malawi Bail Project, camp courts, police cell visits, and paralegal aid clinic to expedite their release. During the year the Paralegal Advisory Service Institute (PASI) reached out to 22,499 detainees, for 17,880 of whom it succeeded in obtaining release. PASI and the Center for Legal Assistance, both NGOs that assist prisoners with legal matters, provided limited free legal assistance to expedite trials of detainees. Priority was given to the sick, the young, mothers with infants, persons with disabilities, and those in extended pretrial detention.
Arbitrary Arrest: The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest, unlawful detention, or false arrest. Although sections of the penal code pertaining to rogues and vagabonds used in the past to make arbitrary arrests were struck down as unconstitutional, police made arrests based on other provisions, such as conduct likely to cause breach of peace and obstruction of police officers. Although prostitution is legal, living off the proceeds of prostitution is illegal; police regularly harassed sex workers.
Pretrial Detention: Of the total prison population of approximately 14,000 inmates, an estimated 2,500, or 18 percent, were in pretrial detention. Despite a statutory 90-day limit on pretrial detention, authorities held most homicide suspects in detention for two to three years before trial. There was evidence some homicide detainees remained in prison awaiting trial for much longer periods, but reliable information on the number and situation of these detainees was unavailable.
To reduce case backlog and excessive pretrial detention, certain cases were directed to local courts and camp courts organized by civil society groups to expedite cases by having magistrates visit prisons to adjudicate cases. Paralegals gathered cases of pretrial detainees awaiting trial for excessive periods, who were held unlawfully, or who had been granted bail but were unable to meet the terms set by the court. Magistrates, along with the court clerk and police prosecutor, worked through the list, granting bail to some, reducing bail for others, dismissing cases, or setting trial dates.
The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality. The judicial system, however, was inefficient and handicapped by serious weaknesses, including poor recordkeeping; a shortage of judges, attorneys, and other trained personnel; heavy caseloads; and corruption. The slow-moving judicial system, including extensive delays due to motion practice (a three-step court order request), a low bar for granting injunctions, judge shopping, prosecutorial delay tactics, recusals, and lawyers and witnesses not being present on trial dates, undermined the government’s ability to dispense justice.
The Malawi Defense Force conducts courts-martial but not military or security tribunals. Used more frequently than courts-martial is a nonjudicial procedure under which cases are dealt with summarily by senior officers without a formal trial process. In both procedures military personnel are entitled to the same rights as persons accused in civilian courts.
The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right.
Defendants are presumed innocent. The constitution and law require a court to inform an accused of charges within 48 hours of arrest, with free assistance of an interpreter if necessary. Defendants have the right to be present at their trial, to have an attorney, and, if indigent, an attorney provided at state expense, but such assistance was usually limited to homicide cases. Defendants have the right to challenge prosecution or plaintiff evidence and witnesses and present their own witnesses and evidence. By law they may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. The law does not specify a length of time for the accused to prepare a defense. The slow pace of trials affords defendants adequate time to prepare, but not to adequate facilities due to insufficient prison system funding. All persons have the right of appeal; however, appeals often were delayed for years and sometimes never addressed by a higher court.
The judiciary’s budgetary and administrative problems led to backlogs that effectively denied expeditious trials for most defendants and kept some defendants in pretrial detention for long periods. Recruitment and retention of government attorneys remained a problem. Police prosecutors with limited legal training prosecuted most criminal cases. The Directorate of Public Prosecutions in the Ministry of Justice customarily tried high-profile cases and those involving the most serious offenses. The directorate had 19 prosecuting attorneys supported by 17 paralegals, who also prosecuted certain lower court cases. COVID-19 pandemic restrictions caused trial delays.
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
There is an independent and impartial judiciary in civil matters, and citizens have access to a court to submit lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, human rights violations. Individuals and organizations may appeal adverse domestic decisions to regional courts. The law provides for administrative and judicial remedies for alleged wrongs; however, a lack of legal professionals restricted the number of human rights cases pursued and resulted in a large backlog. As of November there were only 588 licensed legal practitioners in a country of more than 18 million inhabitants.
The constitution and law prohibit such actions, but the government did not always respect these prohibitions.
The law permits police officers of the rank of subinspector or higher to conduct searches without a court warrant if they have reasonable grounds to believe they could not otherwise obtain something needed for an investigation without undue delay. Before conducting a search without a warrant, the officer must write a reasonable-grounds justification and give a copy to the owner or occupant of the place to be searched.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The penal code criminalizes rape of women and girls with a maximum penalty of death for conviction. The 2015 Marriage, Divorce, and Family Relations Act explicitly introduces the concept of spousal rape, but the act does not prescribe specific penalties for conviction and applies only to legally separated spouses. Spousal rape may be prosecuted under the rape provisions of the penal code. The government generally enforced the law effectively, and convicted rapists routinely received prison sentences.
Data on the prevalence of rape or spousal rape, prosecutions, and convictions were unavailable; however, press reporting of rape and defilement arrests and convictions were an almost daily occurrence. Although the maximum penalty for conviction of rape is death or life imprisonment, the courts generally imposed lesser prison sentences. For cases of conviction of indecent assault on women and girls, the maximum penalty is 14 years’ imprisonment. A person convicted of indecent assault on a boy younger than age 14 may be imprisoned for up to seven years.
The Ministry of Gender, Community Development, and Social Welfare and donor-funded NGOs conducted public education campaigns to combat domestic sexual harassment, violence, and rape.
The law provides a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for conviction of domestic violence and recognizes that both men and women may be perpetrators as well as victims. Domestic violence, especially wife beating, was common, although victims rarely sought legal recourse. Police regularly investigated cases of rape, sexual assault, and gender-based violence but did not normally intervene in domestic disputes. Police support units provided limited shelter for some abuse victims.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law does not specifically prohibit FGM/C. There are no national statistics on FGM/C. The practice of labia elongation or pulling has been documented. It was performed on girls ages 11 to 15 during sexual initiation camps in rural areas of the Southern Region.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The law prohibits harmful social, cultural, or religious practices, including “widow cleansing” and “widow inheritance.” Nonetheless, in some areas widows were sometimes forced to have sex with male in-laws or a designee as part of a culturally mandated “sexual cleansing” ritual following the death of the husband. In some cases widows were “inherited” by a brother-in-law or other male relative. The government and NGOs sought to abolish such practices by raising awareness concerning the inherent dangers of such behavior, including the risk of HIV/AIDS transmission.
Kupimbira, a practice that allows a poor family to receive a loan or livestock in exchange for pubescent daughters, existed in some areas.
Despite certain legal prohibitions, many abusive practices, including the secret initiation of girls into the socially prescribed roles of womanhood, continued. Such initiations were often aimed at preparing girls for marriage with emphasis on how to engage in sexual acts. In some traditional communities, girls as young as 10 undergo kusasa fumbi, a “cleansing ritual” in which the girls are raped by men. According to one UN-sponsored study, more than 20 percent of girls in secondary school underwent a form of initiation that involved rape by an older man.
Sexual Harassment: Although sexual harassment was believed to be widespread, there were no data on its prevalence or on the effectiveness of government enforcement of the law. The law makes conviction of sexual harassment punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment and places an obligation on government to have policies and procedures aimed at eliminating sexual harassment. Conviction of “insulting the modesty” of a woman is a misdemeanor punishable by one year’s incarceration. Conviction in extreme cases, such as indecent assault on a woman or girl is punishable by sentences of up to 14 years’ imprisonment.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children and had access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. The law limits abortion to safeguarding the life and mental and physical health of a girl or woman.
Health-care clinics and local NGOs operated freely in disseminating information on family planning under the guidance of the Ministry of Health. There were no restrictions on the right to use contraceptives, but access was limited in rural areas. According the 2016 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey (MDHS), 81 percent of girls and women of reproductive age had their need for family planning satisfied with modern methods. The government provided free childbirth services, but availability depended upon access to hospitals and other medical facilities in rural areas.
The MDHS estimated the maternal mortality rate was 439 deaths per 100,000 live births, and a woman’s lifetime risk of maternal death was one in 29. HIV/AIDS and adolescent pregnancy were factors in these high rates. Nurses and midwives were a critical component of prenatal and postnatal care due to a shortage of doctors. According to the National Statistical Office, skilled health-care providers assisted in 90 percent of births in 2018. There was only limited access to emergency obstetric care, particularly in rural areas.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities. In November 2019 the Office of the Ombudsman launched a public appeal for information and testimony following media reports of involuntary hysterectomies of caesarian patients at Blantyre’s referral hospital.
Discrimination: By law women have the same legal status and rights as men and may not be discriminated against based on gender or marital status, including in the workplace. Nevertheless, women had significantly lower levels of literacy, education, and formal and nontraditional employment opportunities, as well as lower rates of access to resources for farming. Widows often were victims of discriminatory and illegal inheritance practices in which most of an estate was taken by the deceased husband’s family. Although Malawian men may sponsor their wives for naturalization, the law does not permit Malawian women to sponsor their husbands for naturalization.
The government addressed women’s concerns through the Ministry of Gender, Community Development, and Social Welfare. The law provides for a minimum level of child support, widows’ rights, and maternity leave; however, few knew their rights or had access to the legal system and thus did not benefit from these legal protections.
Birth Registration: Citizenship may be derived from birth within the country or abroad to at least one Malawian parent “of African race.” There were no reports of discrimination or denial of services due to lack of birth registration.
Education: The government provided tuition-free primary education for all children. Education up to age 18 is compulsory, although many families could not afford book fees and uniforms, and limited space in secondary schools prevented many students from continuing beyond primary education. Students from poor families had access to a public book fund.
Child Abuse: Child abuse remained a serious problem. The press regularly reported cases of sexual abuse of children, including arrests for rape, incest, sodomy, and defilement.
The law prohibits subjecting a child to any social or customary practice that is harmful to health or general development. Prohibited practices include child trafficking, forced labor, early and forced marriage or betrothal, and use of children as security for loans or other debts.
The Ministry of Gender, Community Development, and Social Welfare activities to enhance protection and support of child victims included reuniting rescued victims of child labor with their parents and operating shelters for vulnerable children.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The law sets the minimum age for marriage at 18. According to UNICEF, 46 percent of girls are married before 18, and 9 percent of girls are married before 15. Civic education on early marriage was carried out mainly by NGOs. Some traditional leaders annulled early marriages and returned the girls involved to school.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law forbids engaging in sexual activity with children younger than age 16 and stipulates penalties for conviction of 14 to 21 years’ imprisonment. The law further prohibits “indecent practice” in the presence of or with a child, with offenders liable to 14 years’ imprisonment.
The law prohibits commercial sexual exploitation of children, including child pornography and using a child for public entertainment of an immoral or harmful nature. The maximum penalty for conviction of engaging in child pornography is 14 years’ imprisonment, while those found guilty of procuring a child for public entertainment are liable to a substantial monetary fine and seven years’ imprisonment. The law was not effectively enforced.
The widespread belief that children were unlikely to be HIV-positive and that sexual intercourse with virgins could cleanse an individual of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, contributed to the widespread sexual exploitation of minors. The trafficking of children for sexual purposes was a problem, and child prostitution for survival at the behest of parents or without third-party involvement occurred. In urban areas bar and rest house owners recruited girls as young as 12 from rural areas to do household work such as cleaning and cooking. They then coerced them to engage in sex work with customers in exchange for room and board.
Displaced Children: According to the 2015 Demographic and Health Survey, 20 percent of children younger than age 18 were not living with either biological parent, and 12 percent were orphaned or vulnerable due to extended parental illness or death. Extended family members normally cared for such children and other orphans.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at .
The Jewish community is very small, and there were no known reports of anti-Semitic acts.
The Disability Act prohibits discrimination in education, health care, the judicial system, social services, the workplace, housing, political life, and cultural and sporting activities for persons with disabilities, defined as a long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairment. The law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in political and public life and calls for the government to take measures to provide access for them to transportation, information, and communication services. The law provides for the establishment of a disability trust fund to support persons with disabilities, including regarding access to public facilities, both governmental and private.
Societal stigma related to disability and the lack of accessibility to public buildings and transportation negatively affected the ability of persons with disabilities to obtain services and obtain and maintain employment.
Accommodations for persons with disabilities were not among the government’s priorities. Although the Disability Act took effect in 2013, the government had yet to adopt standards and plans for its enforcement and implementation. The Ministry of Gender, Community Development, and Social Welfare is responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, but it was unable to do so.
There were public and privately supported schools and training centers that assisted persons with disabilities. As of August the MHRC reported t two complaints were received related to abuse of disability rights.
The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual activity, or “unnatural offenses,” and conviction is punishable by up to 14 years’ imprisonment, including hard labor. Conviction of attempting “unnatural offenses” is punishable by seven years’ imprisonment. The penal code also criminalizes “indecent practices” between men as well as between women and provides for punishment of five years’ imprisonment if convicted. The government did not actively enforce these laws.
Same-sex sexual activity may also be prosecuted as “conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace.”
The Center for the Development of People documented 15 instances of abuse based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The nature of the abuses fell into three broad categories: stigma, harassment, and violence.
While the law does not prohibit discrimination against LGBTI persons, the revised Malawi National Strategic Plan for HIV and AIDS (2020-25) has also included the transgender and the men who have sex with men community as part of the key populations to be targeted reach towards its goals.
Societal discrimination against persons with HIV and AIDS remained a problem, especially in rural areas. Many individuals preferred to keep silent regarding their health conditions rather than seek help and risk being ostracized. Campaigns by the government and NGOs to combat the stigma had some success. The National AIDS Commission maintained that discrimination was a problem in both the public and private sectors.
The 2012 People Living with HIV Stigma Index for Malawi indicated that of 2,272 persons with HIV interviewed, significant percentages reported having been verbally insulted, harassed, and threatened (35 percent) and excluded from social gatherings (33 percent).
Mobs and local citizens sometimes engaged in vigilante attacks, at times killing persons suspected of crimes such as theft.
There were several attacks on persons with albinism driven by demand for body parts for witchcraft rituals. Religious, traditional, civil society, and political leaders, including the president, publicly denounced the attacks. On July 24, Dorothy Jeffrey, a woman with albinism, survived an attempted abduction at night at her home in Moliha Village in Machinga District. She and her grandmother were injured; one of her suspected abductors was arrested.
In January 2019 Eunice Nkhonjera, an 18-month-old girl with albinism, was abducted from her home in the northern town of Karonga. In February 2019 police arrested three persons suspected of involvement in her kidnapping. Goodson Makanjira, a 14-year-old boy with albinism, was abducted from his home in the central region district of Dedza. Police arrested six suspects, one of whom, Buleya Lule, died in police custody. Both cases remained under police investigation at year’s end. In a sign of increased vigilance against killings of persons with albinism, courts across the country handed down severe sentences to those convicted of killing persons with albinism.