Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of women and girls with a maximum penalty of death for conviction. A 2015 law explicitly introduced 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 (statutory rape) 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 survivors.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law does not specifically prohibit FGM/C. There were 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 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 in 2018, 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.
On March 29, the MHRC released a report which alleged former director general of the state-owned broadcaster Malawi Broadcasting Corporation Aubrey Sumbuleta sexually harassed eight female employees. The report recommended compensation for victims and Sumbuleta’s prosecution for indecent assault. The report resulted from an investigation initiated in response to a July 2020 petition calling for Sumbuleta’s dismissal. On April 17, Sumbuleta was arrested and soon after was charged on six counts of indecent assault and abuse of office. He was released on bail on May 20.
In April the MHRC launched the country’s first workplace sexual harassment policy. The policy aims to safeguard employees and persons seeking services at the MHRC from unwelcome sexual advances and provide them with reporting guidelines. The policy provides the mechanism for handling complaints, actions to be taken against perpetrators and strategies for assisting survivors, including accessing legal remedies.
Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities. Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children.
Health-care clinics and local NGOs operated freely in disseminating information on family planning under the guidance of the Ministry of Health. Access to contraceptives was limited in rural areas. According to the 2016 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey (MDHS), 58 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 41. HIV and 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.
Cultural beliefs regarding menstruation and lack of access to menstruation hygiene resources impacted women’s and girls’ ability to participate equally in society, including limiting girls’ access to education. Cultural practices in some regions traditionally excluded menstruating women and girls from participation in social activities, such as forbidding them from talking to male figures or being present where food is being cooked. UNICEF reported that increased availability of menstruation hygiene products such as reusable pads in recent years decreased absenteeism of women and girls in school and in the workplace but stated that lack of access to appropriate water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities continued to be a problem. Factors such as pregnancy, economic hardship, and marriage were the main reasons that girls drop out of school. The country has policies allowing reentry for adolescent mothers. Pregnant students are suspended for one year. They can apply for readmission after this period only by sending requests to the Ministry of Education as well as the school. Many teachers have not seen the policy and were unsure how to implement it.
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 citizen men may sponsor their wives for naturalization, the law does not permit citizen 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.
The constitution and law prohibit discrimination based on race or ethnic origin. The MHRC is constitutionally charged with the responsibility of protecting and investigating human rights abuses. The government generally enforced the law effectively.
Despite numerous tribal groups with diverse cultures, languages, and traditions, violence and discrimination due to tribal, ethnic, or racial differences were rare. The government investigated, prosecuted, and punished persons complicit in violence and abuses.
The government took various measures to ensure equal access to education and employment at all levels of society, including a deliberate policy for free primary education to ensure equal access to basic education for all citizens, irrespective of their tribal, ethnic, cultural, or geographical origin.
The government launched numerous programs to promote social stability, including preventing racial and ethnic violence and discrimination. The government’s Malawi 2063 economic development plan includes numerous initiatives to mitigate poverty and address unemployment. The MHRC conducted effective awareness campaigns to address societal racial or ethnic biases.
Birth Registration: Citizenship may be derived from birth within the country or abroad to at least one citizen 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, although many families could not afford exercise book fees and uniforms, and limited space in secondary schools prevented many students from continuing beyond primary education. In a reversal of previous trends, girls outnumbered boys in primary enrollment. Although initial secondary school enrollment rates for girls and boys were approximately the same, girls tended to drop out of secondary school at much higher rates. Girls accounted for approximately 63 percent of secondary school dropouts.
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 were married before 18, and 9 percent of girls were 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, which is also the minimum age for sexual consent. The law further prohibits “indecent practice” in the presence of or with a child.
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 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 and AIDS, contributed to the widespread sexual exploitation of minors. The trafficking of children for sexual purposes was a problem, and children engaged in commercial sex 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 commercial sex 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 https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
The Jewish community was very small, and there were no known reports of anti-Semitic acts.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report.
Persons with disabilities could not access education, health services, public buildings, and transportation on an equal basis with others. The law requires such access. Government information and communication was provided in accessible formats. 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.
The law 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.
Accommodations for persons with disabilities were not among the government’s priorities. Although the relevant law 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 September the MHRC reported that no complaints were received related to abuse of disability rights.
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.
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The Center for the Development of People documented 16 instances of abuse based on real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. The nature of the abuses fell into three broad categories: stigma, harassment, and violence. Although victims were willing to report the abuses to the center, they did not want their orientation to be revealed to their families or the public, so no investigations or prosecutions resulted.
The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct, 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 conduct may also be prosecuted as “conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace.”
The law does not prohibit discrimination against LGBTQI+ persons. The revised Malawi National Strategic Plan for HIV and AIDS (2020–25) included transgender persons and men who have sex with men as part of the key populations to be targeted to reach its goals.
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, denounced the attacks. On August 13, the mutilated body of Ian Muhama, a 20-year-old man with albinism, was found in Kachere Township in Blantyre. Nine police officers from the nearby Limbe police station were later suspended in September for allegedly compromising the investigation by attempting to conceal the crime.
In March a baby with albinism, age 20 months, was abducted from its home in the southern city of Chikwawa. 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.