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.
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
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.