2008 Malawi Human Rights Report

The US Department of State released its 2008 Malawi Human Rights Report yesterday.  The top line was that government “generally respected the human rights of its citizens; but problems remain in some areas,” which include unlawful use of force, arbitrary arrest and detention, harsh prison conditions, societal violence against women, and corruption.  The full report can be found here. It’s an interesting read for me, but probably more detail than those of you in the US care to know. There are two things that I find noteworthy about the report, though; one, the Malawian reaction to it, and two, the relevance of the “women’s rights” section to my previous post.

Let me say that my gauge of Malawian reaction is not at all objective, it’s merely what I’ve gleaned from comments on a related article on the Nyasa Times website.  To summarize, there is a lot of outrage that the US published the report, given its own record of human rights abuses.  Interestingly,  however, no one seems to be refuting the facts presented in the report.  This seems to me to miss the point.  I would never claim that the US human rights record is unmarred, but that doesn’t change the fact that serious human rights abuses remain in Malawi.  Is it hypocritical?  Perhaps.  But does that make the facts of the report suspect?  I would say no.

I also find the reporter’s representation of the report somewhat suspect.  Notably, the article contains almost no reference to the section about women’s rights, focusing instead on the use/abuse of police and security forces.  While I understand the need to condense the issues presented in the long report for an article-length story, the only place women are mentioned is in the introduction.  In contrast, the report presents a lengthy section on women’s rights (or rather, lack thereof).

Perhaps the report section on women was not included in the newspaper article because it had few sensational examples.  In fact, this section of the report has little concrete data at all; the government apparently does not record statistics about violence against women.  Whether this reflects an administrative or a legal gap, I’m not  sure.  But if you have a culture that silences women, then of course there will be little calculable evidence of their struggle.  The legal system, despite whatever laws are on the books, is only as effective as it is accessible.  Women’s rights are enforceable only when they are culturally recognized by both men AND women.  The reporter’s choice not to represent this section in his article, whether conscious or unconscious, is illustrative of the lack of Malawian recognition of and attention to these issues.

I’ve excerpted the relevant section of the Human Rights Report below (and even bolded the main ideas for you skimmers!).  If the Malawian media does not cover these issues, they should be published somewhere – and even my blog seems like a place to start.

From the Department of State’s 2008 Human Rights Report: Malawi:

The law specifically provides for equal rights for women, forbids discrimination based on language or culture, race, disability, or social status and provides for equality and recognition before the law for every citizen. However, the capacity of government institutions to ensure equal rights for all citizens was limited.


The law criminalizes rape with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Spousal rape is not explicitly mentioned but could be prosecuted under the same rape laws. The government generally enforced the law effectively, and convicted rapists routinely received prison sentences. Data on the prevalence of rape or spousal rape and conviction figures were unavailable; however, press reports of rape arrests and convictions were an almost daily occurrence.

Domestic violence, especially wife beating, was common, although women seldom discussed the problem openly, and victims rarely sought legal recourse. Legal experts and human rights workers attributed victims’ reluctance to report their abusers to economic dependence on the abuser, lack of awareness of their legal rights and fear of retribution and ostracism. The law provides a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for domestic violence. The law also recognizes that both men and women can be perpetrators as well as victims of domestic violence. Police regularly investigated cases of rape and sexual assault but did not normally intervene in domestic disputes.
Police victims support units provide shelter to abuse victims and deal with human rights and gender-based violence, but officers’ capacity to assist and document cases was limited.

Prostitution is legal and prevalent around hotels and bars in urban and tourist areas; however, the law prohibits living off wages earned through prostitution, owning a brothel, or forcing another person into prostitution. Loitering is the main charge under which prostitutes were arrested, resulting usually in small fines.

Sexual harassment is not specifically prohibited by law, but can be prosecuted under existing sections of the penal code such as indecent assault on a female, which carries up to a 14-year prison sentence, or insulting the modesty of a woman, which is a misdemeanor punishable by one year in jail. There was no available data on the extent of sexual harassment or effectiveness of government enforcement.

Under the law women have the right to full and equal protection and may not be discriminated against on the basis of gender or marital status, including in the workplace; however, discrimination against women was pervasive, and women did not have opportunities equal to those available to men. Women had significantly lower levels of literacy, education, formal and nontraditional employment opportunities, and access to resources to increase agricultural productivity.

Women often had less access to legal and financial assistance, and widows often were victims of discriminatory and illegal inheritance practices in which most of an estate was taken by the deceased husband’s family. Women usually were at a disadvantage in marriage, family, and property rights; however, awareness of women’s legal rights continued to increase, and women began to speak out against abuse and discrimination. Households headed by women were represented disproportionately in the lowest quarter of income distribution. Fifty-two percent of full‑time farmers were women; however, they had limited access to agricultural extension services, training, and credit. Gender training for agricultural extension workers and the gradual introduction of rural credit programs for women have increased; however, few women participated in the limited formal labor market, where they constituted less than 5 percent of managerial and administrative staff.

The law provides for a minimum level of child support, widows’ rights, and the right to maternity leave; however, only individuals who could utilize the formal legal system benefited from these legal protections. In a few isolated areas, a widow was sometimes forced to have sex with in‑laws as part of a culturally‑mandated “sexual cleansing” ritual following the death of her husband. In some cases, she was “inherited” by a brother‑in‑law or other male relative. Although there were no laws specifically prohibiting these practices, the government and civil society continued efforts to abolish them by raising awareness concerning the inherent dangers of such behavior, including the risk of HIV/AIDS transmission.

The government addressed women’s concerns through the Ministry of Women and Child Development.


One Response to “2008 Malawi Human Rights Report”

  1. Love Letters to the Middle East Says:

    Thanks for bringing this to attention. Nicely done.

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