Malawi is a multiparty democracy. Constitutional power is shared between the president and the 193 National Assembly members. On May 21, elections for president, parliament, and local councils were conducted. International observers characterized the elections as competent and professional.
The Malawi Police Service, under the Ministry of Home Affairs and Internal Security, has responsibility for law enforcement and maintenance of order. The Malawi Defense Force (MDF) has responsibility for external security. The executive branch sometimes asked the MDF to carry out policing activity. The MDF commander reports directly to the president as commander in chief. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: extrajudicial killings, torture, and arbitrary detention committed by official security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison and detention center conditions; significant acts of corruption; lack of investigation and enforcement in cases of violence against girls and women, including rape and domestic violence, partly due to weak enforcement; trafficking in persons; 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 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The penal code criminalizes rape of women 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 fixed prison sentences. For cases of conviction of indecent assault on women and girls, the maximum penalty is 14 years’ imprisonment.
The Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability, 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. A 2017 UN study found no evidence of FMC/C but that of a practice of labia elongation or pulling. It was performed on girls between ages 10 and 15 during sexual initiation camps in rural areas of the Southern Region. For additional information, see Appendix C.
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 of any age, 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 consisting of forced sexual relations with an older man. According to one UN-sponsored study, more than 20 percent of girls in secondary school underwent a form of initiation that involved sexual relations with 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 ensure workplaces have policies and procedures aimed at eliminating sexual harassment in the workplace. Extreme cases could be prosecuted under certain sections of the penal code, such as indecent assault on a woman or girl, under which conviction provides up to a 14-year prison sentence, or conviction of insulting the modesty of a woman, a misdemeanor punishable by one year’s incarceration.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion, but there were reports of involuntary sterilization. In November 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. For estimates on maternal mortality and contraceptive prevalence, see Appendix C.
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.
The government addressed women’s concerns through the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability, 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. For additional information, see Appendix C.
Education: The government provided tuition-free primary education for all children. Education for children 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. For additional information, see Appendix C.
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. For additional information, see Appendix C.
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, Children, Disability, 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.
Early and Forced Marriage: The law sets the minimum age for marriage at 18. Civic education on early marriage was carried out mainly by NGOs. Some traditional leaders annulled early marriages and returned the girls involved to school. For additional information, see Appendix C.
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 in prison. The law further prohibits “indecent practice” in the presence of or with a child, with offenders liable to imprisonment of up to 14 years.
The law prohibits 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 fine of 100,000 MWK ($130) 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. For additional information, see Appendix C.
Displaced Children: According to the 2010 Demographic and Health Survey, 19 percent of children younger than age 18 were not living with either biological parent, and 17 percent were orphaned or vulnerable due to extended parental illness or death, including an estimated 650,000 orphaned because of AIDS. 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 HYPERLINK “https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html”https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
The Jewish community is 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.
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 had a negative impact on 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, Children, Disability, 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 October the MHRC reported receiving no complaints related to abuse of disability rights.
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
By law and practice, LGBTI persons are denied basic civil, political, social, and economic rights. Consensual same-sex sexual activity is illegal, and conviction is punishable by up to 14 years’ imprisonment, including hard labor. The penal code, a legacy from the British colonial era, outlaws “unnatural offenses” and “indecent practices between men.”
Same-sex sexual activity may also be prosecuted as “conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace.” The penalty for conviction of consensual same-sex sexual activity between women is up to five years’ imprisonment.
In 2016, the latest year for which data were available, the Center for the Development of People documented 21 instances of abuse based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The nature of the abuses fell into three broad categories: stigma, harassment, and violence.
In August, Lawrence Phiri, a transgender man, was attacked by an unknown assailant while at a bar in Lilongwe. The attacker preceded the assault by shouting slurs at Phiri and questioning his gender and sexuality. Phiri suffered severe lacerations on the head as a result of the assault.
Societal discrimination against persons with HIV/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 January 22, Eunice Nkhonjera, an 18-month-old girl with albinism, was abducted from her home in the northern town of Karonga. In February police arrested three persons suspected of involvement in her kidnapping. On February 13, 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. On May 3, the court in the southern district of Thyolo sentenced to death a man who had confessed to killing a 19-year-old man with albinism in 2017. The convict admitted he had intended to use the deceased’s body parts to become rich on instructions from a witchdoctor in neighboring Mozambique. On August 13, a High Court judge convicted and sentenced to death Douglas Mwale, Fontino Folosani, and Sophie Jere for murdering Priscott Pepuzani in 2015.