Monday, May 26, 2008

Mob Justice in Malawi: Accused of Witchcraft, the Elderly Are Rarely Protected by the Law

by Pilirani Semu-Banda
Sixty-three year old Gladys Kasito, in Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe, only has one wish – to die peacefully, preferably in her sleep. Kasito says she feels trapped and threatened in her own country. Her community, including her own family, has disowned her. She says everyone is baying for her blood. Kasito has been labeled a witch.

Her face is heavily scarred, she walks with a limp, and has no front teeth. Kasito is recovering from the wounds she sustained when her neighbors demolished her house early one February morning and beat her up. A few passers-by rescued her and took her to hospital.

“All I want is to die, but peacefully. I no longer want to go through the mental and physical ordeal that I was subjected to. They call me a witch just because I am old and no longer pretty,” worries Kasito.

She now sleeps in a shack in what used to be her kitchen. Only rubble remains where her house once stood. Kasito was attacked by her neighbors after a seven year old boy woke up with a swollen leg and told his parents that he was pushed off a witchcraft plane by the old woman after he had refused to bewitch his sisters.
“My three children say I embarrass them and they have nothing to do with me. My neighbors run away from me and I am just destitute. I have nothing to live for,” Kasito says in an interview.

In Malawi, witches and wizards are believed to be cannibals who have supernatural powers that they use to make people sick and even kill them; it is commonly believed that the witches prey on the meat of the dead. A typical witch or wizard in Malawi is said to have the ability to fly, especially at night, and to have powers that help them change their appearances; they can become invisible, go through walls or turn into animals such as cats, owls and hyenas.

Most Malawians believe that witchdoctors are the experts on witchcraft and that they alone can protect people from being killed through magic. Witchdoctors use herbal concoctions to cleanse and remove witchcraft from those that practice it and those that may have been bewitched unknowingly. Communities will often help perform a ceremony to rid children and witches of witchcraft led by the witchdoctor.

Once labeled as witches or wizards, the accused have very little chance of leading a normal life since they are stigmatized, rejected by society and rarely protected by the law. On numerous occasions, the Malawi police has arrested and brought suspected witches before the court, where in most cases, the suspects are sent to prison.

Malita Khoviwa, 54, a teacher in the southern district of Mulanje has just finished serving a three-month jail term. She was convicted in January for causing the temporary disappearance of a 14 year old girl in her neighborhood.

Khoviwa was arrested after the girl’s parents consulted a witchdoctor who led them to the teacher’s house. Khoviwa explains in an interview that the girl had run away from home because she was poorly treated by her parents.

She came to my house to seek refuge but they accused me of witchcraft and the court convicted me. I am hated around my village because I make more money as a teacher. Most people in the village haven’t been to school and they are poor,” says Khoviwa.
But it is not only illiterate Malawians who believe in witchcraft. Both Kasito and Khoviwa have well educated children who have rejected them.

Khoviwa’s eldest son, Mylos, says that his father died mysteriously in 2005. “He just stopped talking and died the next day. My mother has failed to explain to any of us the circumstances surrounding his death and the whole family strongly thinks that she bewitched him.”

Most of the witch-hunting activities are occurring in towns and cities where most people are educated. A lot of people, literate or not, also consult witchdoctors every time they don’t feel well. They believe that they have been bewitched and the witchdoctors usually provide them with herbs and a talisman for protection against witchcraft.

Recently, Alesi Yosefe, 60, from Malawi’s central district of Mchinji was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment after people in her area complained that she was “flying around a market place using a witchcraft plane and disturbing peace.”

Police prosecutor Julion Mtotela told the court that some people in Yosefe’s community said that their children were always exhausted in the morning. The children would tell their parents that that they had been practicing witchcraft throughout the night with Yosefe.

For whatever reason, Yosefe plead guilty. The magistrate, Steven Chifomboti, convicted her based on her own plea but also used Malawi’s laws Chapter 7.02, Section 6, of the Witchcraft Act to send her to jail.

The Witchcraft Act states that “any person, who by his statement or actions represents himself to be a wizard or witch or exercising the power of witchcraft, shall be liable to a fine of 50 British Pounds and to imprisonment for 10 years.”

The Act is 107 years old and was put in place by Malawi’s colonial power, Britain, in 1901. Back then, the British rulers in Malawi had negotiated treaties with indigenous rulers resulting in the formal laws now governing the country.

Chikumbutso Mponda is serving a five-year jail term after being convicted on allegations that his magic plane crashed while he was traveling in it. The police told the court that Mponda fell from the magic plane after it flew over a house, which was also magically protected. Magistrate Hends Kantchere, who convicted Mponda, explained that he imposed such a tough sentence based on the Witchcraft Act.

“Innocent people are being affected directly or indirectly [by witchcraft], especially children who are being taught without their knowledge,” says Kantchere.

But another purported wizard, Medson Kachilika, is not going down without a fight. He is challenging the outdated Witchcraft Act after being arrested and taken to court when he was accused of teaching witchcraft to children. He applied to the country’s Constitution Court to have the act invalidated and argues that the law violates the people’s right to freedom of consciousness, religion, belief and thought.

The Constitution Court has yet to hear the case.

Just recently, on May 4th, an angry mob apprehended 50 year old Veronica Vincent and her 65 year old mother in Malawi’s university town of Zomba and took them to witchdoctor, Jimmy Mustafa, 42, after four children, ages six to eight, claimed that the women were teaching them witchcraft. Vincent died of poisoning after Mustafa administered an herbal concoction to cleanse her of witchcraft.

Police public relations officer in Zomba, Thomeck Nyaude, said the witchdoctor forced Vincent to drink a brew he concocted and that the woman started throwing up soon after taking the mixture of herbs.
“Vincent died just a few hours [later]. Her mother escaped death because the witchdoctor did not administer it to her after seeing what had happened to Vincent,” said Nyaude.

The police officer said Mustafa has since been arrested but has plead “not guilty” to charges of murder claiming that he had previously administered the same potions to many other witchcraft suspects and none of them had died.

No statistics exist on the number of people serving sentences for practicing witchcraft in Malawi prisons, but NGOs and churches decry the increase in witchcraft cases throughout the country. (In Malawi, little research is generally done since the country is poor.)

Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church, which is the biggest and most influential denomination in Malawi with a following of 4 million out of the country’s 13 million people, says witchcraft is real in the country.

Reverend Father Stanislaus Chinguo, chairman of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in the Blantyre Archdiocese, said in an interview that the church is working on solutions to witchcraft for its followers.

“[Witchcraft] is a real challenge to the church and we have to face it head on. We are looking at a number of solutions and one of those is exorcism,” says Chinguo. The priest says the Catholic Church in Malawi has lost some of its members to other churches because it has failed to accept the existence of witchcraft thereby failing to help the Christians “that have been haunted by it.”

The Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC), a non-governmental organization that works on the promotion and protection of human rights in Malawi is lobbying for a proper “normative legal position” on witchcraft.

“The time has come for Malawians to accept reality and stop burying our heads in the sand. The reported incidents of witchcraft across the country have reached alarming levels, warranting urgent attention. We have in the recent past witnessed violent incidents involving suspected witchcraft practitioners and communities,” states a report by HRCC Chairperson Justin Dzonzi.

Dzonzi states that there is need for the country to carry out a rational process to address the issues that, he says, cannot be ignored any longer.

Another prominent human rights organization, Civil Liberties Committee (CILIC) has asked government to come up with a bill that would protect witchcraft suspects. No steps have yet been taken to review or invalidate the Witchcraft Act.

Meanwhile, communities in the country continue to terrorize suspected witches and wizards, and old women continue to be the easiest targets.

Aid Will Not Be Conditional Upon Signing of EPAs

by Pilirani Semu-Banda

LILONGWE, May 16 - The European Commission (EC) has assured Malawi that the country will continue receiving cooperation aid even if it does not sign an economic partnership agreement (EPA) with the European Union.

Malawi’s president Bingu wa Mutharika last month accused the European Union (EU) of ‘‘imperialism’’, saying it was punishing countries who resisted the EPAs by threatening to withhold aid from the European Development Fund.

Malawi is not one of the 18 African states that signed the interim EPAs which the EU was attempting to rush through last year. Mutharika said at a press conference last month that he will not allow Malawi to sign the EPA because it has the potential to be harmful to the country.

Heavy pressure against the EPA has emanated from different sectors. Ten of the country’s most influential non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have protested against the signing of the EPA because of the adverse effects that will be caused by sudden and extensive liberalisation.

In contrast, the EU’s head of delegation to Malawi, Alessandro Mariani, said last week that the EU believes that the EPAs would serve the interests of Malawi. He was speaking at the European Day commemoration celebrations on May 9 in the country’s capital Lilongwe.

Mariani also assured Malawi that the EU will go ahead to finance the country with up to 451 million euros, even if the country does not append its signature to the EPAs.

‘‘Please allow me to reconfirm that there is no link between access to grants allocated to Malawi under the European Development Fund and signing the EPAs,’’ said Mariani.

He was reiterating an EC press statement issued on April 18 that declared that aid from the European Development Fund (EDF) will not be tied to the EPAs.

‘‘This is valid for Malawi as well as for all the ACP (African, Caribbean and Pacific) countries which benefit of the development assistance provided through the EDF. (Trade) commissioner (Peter) Mandelson stated that the level of resources made available to ACP countries will remain as has been agreed,’’ said the statement.

The EC admitted that the programming of EDF regional resources will take into account EPA implementation needs but that ‘‘there has at no time been any attempt by the EU to reduce EDF resources for those ACP countries that do not to sign an EPA’’.

The statement further indicated that Malawi was among the very first group of ACP countries that signed the latest EDF arrangement at the EU-Africa summit in Lisbon in December last year, and that no link was ever made with accession to the EPA.

The statement further confirmed that ‘‘the overall objective of European co-operation aid is to assist developing countries in their fight against poverty and in the implementation of their own development strategy to achieve this objective.

‘‘Ownership of European assistance by the partner country is paramount and contributes to the achievement of the millennium development goals, and in particular the national development objectives of the partner country,’’ said the EC.

The EC also reminded Malawi that while it has decided not to initial the EPA, it benefits from the ‘‘Everything but Arms’’ (EBA) trade arrangement under the EU’s generalised system of preferences, like all the other least developed countries (LDCs) in the world.

The statement said that under the EBA all LDCs have duty and quota free market access to the EU market, subject to a transitional period for sugar and rice only. ‘‘Malawi sugar exports to the EU will continue to be able to enter the EU market duty free and will be quota free from 2009 onwards,’’ said the EC.

The statements went on to quote Mandelson that ‘‘it is the right of every country to determine whether an agreement is in its interest’’.

However, Mandelson stated that the EBA is not perfect as it is a unilateral regime offered by the EU while the EPA, as a negotiated agreement covered by World Trade Organisation rules, offers a level of legal security that the EBA does not.

Andrew Kumbatira, who heads up Malawi Economic Justice Network, the country’s most prominent NGO advocating for economic justice, still accuses the EU of failing to make a commitment to funding which will assist countries like Malawi to adapt to a liberalised regime.

‘‘All countries should be at par in the EPAs but the EU is already a great giant in this. We should trade as equals and the EU should help us to get to their level. There is need to resolve issues of supply side constraints and we need funding for us to deal with those but the EU is very silent about such issues,’’ Kumbatira told IPS.

Speaking during the European Day celebrations, Minister of Trade and Industry Ted Kalebe said Malawi was hoping that the ongoing discussions on EPAs will come to a meaningful conclusion by the end of this year. (END/2008)

Turmoil as Tobacco Prices Fluctuate

by Pilirani Semu-Banda

Malawi’s tobacco industry has been in turmoil after wildly fluctuating prices led protesting farmers to force the closure of the auction floors.

This year’s tobacco sales started on a very high note with prices reaching the phenomenal price of 11 dollars per kg. The high prices did not last, however.

The tobacco auction floors opened in Malawi’s capital city Lilongwe in March with a kilogram of tobacco fetching between six and eleven dollars. This gave hope to farmers who have struggled to make any profit from the trade over the last few years.

Malawi’s cancellation of subsidies for tobacco production a number of years ago has meant that farmers have to cover the full cost of production.

It costs the average tobacco farmer one dollar to produce one kilogram of the crop, according to Malawi’s ministry of agriculture. But for many years, prices moved between 70 and 90 cents per kilogram.

This placed the heavy burden of perpetual debt on farmers as they failed to settle loans to purchase farm inputs. Most farmers cut production and others diversified to different economic activities.

Then the unexpected hike in prices happened. Godwin Ludzu, a farmer from Malawi’s central district of Kasungu, was among the lucky ones who sold up to 30 bales of tobacco at 10 dollars per kilogram on the first day of trading. He was ecstatic about the profits he made.

‘‘The price was very good. I will be able to settle all the loans I incurred in producing the tobacco,’’ said Ludzu. He has been growing tobacco for six years. The auction prices this year are the best he has ever come across.

However, the exceptional prices did not last. On the second day, the flicker of hope died. Prices have since fluctuated, with the value of the leaf dropping to between 2.30 dollars and 60 cents for the same quality crop.

The statutory Tobacco Control Commission’s (TCC) general manager Godfrey Chapola confirmed that prices started off high because of a tobacco shortage on the global market. He said that that some countries which grow tobacco have stopped while others have reduced production levels, causing consumption to be higher than supply.

The fluctuation in prices has affected farmers badly. Champhira Gondwe, a farmer from the northern district of Rumphi, went to the Mzuzu auction floors in the north of Malawi. He could not sell any of his produce because he found that the tobacco prices were set very low.

‘‘They were being pegged at the maximum price of 2.30 dollars. I couldn’t let my hard-earned produce go at such a low price when our counterparts in Lilongwe sold their tobacco at 10 dollars,’’ said Gondwe.

The Mzuzu floors were closed on April 14 after violence broke out between the farmers and the guards at the market. The farmers physically blocked the buyers from continuing with sales. The TCC then suspended the sales.

The farmers were not ready to let go of their demand for higher prices after hearing about the worldwide shortage of tobacco.

Sales of tobacco were suspended on all four auction floors in April but the floors reopened again in the last week of April.

President Bingu wa Mutharika, himself a tobacco farmer, has previously accused buyers of fixing prices but the buying companies – from the U.S. and Switzerland -- have denied the allegations.

The southern African country is a major exporter of tobacco, accounting for five percent of the world's total exports and two percent of total production on the planet. In terms of burley tobacco, Malawi produces some 20 percent of the global total, according to the World Bank.

The country derives up to 70 percent of its foreign exchange earnings from agriculture, and the tobacco industry is responsible for 15 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). About two million of the country's 13 million people depend on tobacco and related industries for their livelihood. (END/2008)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Female condom, a lifeline

by Pilirani Semu-Banda
A small group of women stand around in a hair salon in Chilomoni. Business has come to a temporary stand-still as each one of them is engrossed in what one of the ladies, Chipiliro Kamtema is doing. Kamtema has a female condom in her hands and she is explaining to the women on how to use it.

All the women in the salon have already pledged that they will start using the female condom. The owner of the salon, Jacqueline Talama-Jamu, has placed an order with Kamtema to have 10 dispensers of the condoms delivered to her within the following week.

Kamtema loves her job; she boasts that she would have been dubbed “a knight in shining armour” if she were a man. She goes around hair salons in Blantyre City promoting the new brand of female condoms called Care. She says she is saving lives.

The bubbly lady works for Population Services International (PSI) as Senior Care Promoter. She says that a lot of women in the commercial capital are in total awe of the female condom; its capabilities to save lives and the responsibilities it bestows on women to ensure their own protection against sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.

“They say I am contributing to saving lives just by doing my job and that’s why I call myself a knight of some sort,” says Kamtema.

She explains that women are so keen on female condoms.

“For once, women have the authority on their protection against sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy and they love this new responsibility,” Kamtema says.

Talama-Jamu is not the only hair salon owner who is keen on selling the female condom to her clientele; PSI Malawi is already working with up to 2,800 hair salons in the country’s four major urban centres of Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Zomba in making the female condoms available to the public.

“The salon is a place where most women throw away any inhibitions and are able to talk to fellow women on a lot of important issues including sexual health. I have already started promoting the Care condom to everyone who comes to my salon,” says Talama-Jamu.

Talama-Jamu says she has been teaching her customers the importance of using a female condom and also on how to use it.

“I demonstrate to them on how to insert and remove it. Apart from educating them, we have fun in joking about this new initiative as well,” Talamu-Jamu explains.

She says she is also making a good profit from the condom sales. PSI sells a pack of two condoms at K23 to the salon owners and they, in turn, sell them to their customers for K35.

PSI Malawi says experience and research has shown that hair salons are an effective marketplace for female condoms, as well as an excellent venue for providing targeted interpersonal and behavior change communications activities.

Today, PSI Malawi, with support from Ministry of Health and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), will be launching the Care female condoms, a branded, social-marketed female condom, which offers dual protection against unplanned pregnancies and HIV/Aids.

PSI/Malawi has trained and employed a team of female Care promoters, like Kamtema to distribute and promote Care female condoms in the nation’s many hair salons. These Care promoters will in turn train hair salon staff on how to demonstrate the correct use of female condoms for their customers, encouraging them to purchase the product and empowering them to protect themselves against unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections and HIV/Aids.

Country Representative for PSI/Malawi, John Justino says the launch of a female condom social marketing programme in Malawi was made possible through “the incredible determination and drive” of the Ministry of Health’s Reproductive Health Unit (RHU) and the UNFPA.

“At PSI/Malawi, we are very pleased with the partnership with the RHU and UNFPA and we are proud of our joint achievements and the launch of Care Female Condoms. We are particularly pleased as this programme demonstrates clearly the government of Malawi’s efforts, as well as those of UNFPA and PSI, to help empower Malawian women to make choices that enable them to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies and HIV/Aids,” says Justino.

UNFPA Condom Coordinator Sandra Mapemba explains that her organisation is the United Nations lead agency for issues of HIV prevention hence its support towards PSI.

Mapemba says UNFPA has the expertise and experience in procurement and educating communities on correct and consistent use of male and female condoms to help safeguard sexual and reproductive health.

“UNFPA provides quality condoms and provides the best prices because it is the largest public-sector procurer of condoms in the world,” says Mapemba.

She says UNFPA also supports the RHU in the Ministry of Health through technical assistance in comprehensive condom programming.

Mapemba says the female condom programme took off in 2000 mainly through the Family Planning Association of Malawi (FPAM) and selected health centres throughout the country.

Achievements on the female condom initiative that have been recorded by RHU include an increase in the distribution of female condoms from 124,000 pieces between 2004 and 2006 to 298,000 pieces in 2007.

Meanwhile, fifteen PSI country programs worldwide currently distribute female condoms using innovative approaches that combine peer education and mass media communications with innovative distribution strategies.

A press statement from PSI Malawi indicates that experiences in Zimbabwe and Zambia indicate that female condom marketing programs must complement conventional commercial selling strategies with creative, non-conventional distribution methods that are built upon existing female social networks and gatherings places, such as hair/beauty salons. Since their launch in 1997 and 1995 respectively, a total of over 7 million female condoms have been sold in Zimbabwe and Zambia.

After the Malawi launch, PSI/Malawi will begin putting the power and reach of the commercial marketplace to work to ensure the broad availability of Care female condoms nationwide.

''If EPAs Are So Good, Why Force Us to Sign?''

by Pilirani Semu-Banda

While the European Union (EU) has wanted a conclusion to the economic partnership agreements (EPAs) as soon as possible, the Malawian government has been staving off a deal.

The deadline for EPAs at the end of last year passed without Malawi signing -- in contrast to other African states such as Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and the members of the Southern African Customs Union, excluding South Africa.

The Malawi government indicated that it was taking its time considering the implications of the EPAs, for fear of getting bound to an agreement that might not be good for the nation. The EPAs are deals aimed at liberalising trade between the EU and African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries.

Secretary for Trade Newby Kumwembe told IPS last month that Malawi does not want to rush into signing an agreement without exhausting all channels of consultation within the government hierarchy.

‘‘The EPA is not a temporary agreement. This is something that Malawi is going to live with for a very long time. We cannot therefore rush to make a decision that might make us have regrets at a later stage,’’ cautioned Kumwembe.

For such ‘‘an important trade agreement’’, the trade ministry, which has been directly involved in the trade negotiations, needs to go through all its bureaucratic channels which meant consulting the whole state machinery.

Kumwembe mentioned the country’s foreign affairs ministry and the cabinet as some of the important groups that have to scrutinise and recommend on whether the country should sign an EPA or not.

‘‘You don’t negotiate for a raw deal. We want to sign an agreement that has no loopholes and that’s why we want to have conclusive consultations,’’ added Kumwembe.

Malawi government consultations can take ‘‘very long’’ and no timeframe has been set for a decision to be made. ‘‘It may take some time before we, as a country, know for sure what we’re going to do on the EPA,’’ said Kumwembe.

At the beginning of this month Malawi’s President Bingu wa Mutharika said at a press conference that he will not allow Malawi to sign the EPA because it will not benefit Malawians. Instead, it is expected to be harmful to the country.

Mutharika went as far as to accuse the EU of ‘‘imperialism’’.

He was critical of the EU’s stance that EPA signatories will be assisted with money from the European Development Fund (EDF).

‘‘This is imperialism by the EU which we must fight against because the EDF funding has nothing to do with EPA conditionalities. They are doing this in order to punish those that who are not signing their agreements. Now, if the agreement is so good, why do they have to force people to sign?’’ asked Mutharika.

The government’s decision could mean that it is bowing to the pressure mounted by 10 of the country’s most influential non-governmental (NGOs). They have been protesting against the signing of the EPA in its current form since early last year.

In April 2007 five civil society organisations wrote to EU president Angela Merkel, arguing that the EPAs will prevent Malawi and other poor countries to protect their domestic industries with tariffs and other means.

The Malawi Economic Justice Network (MEJN), consisting of NGOs advocating economic justice, is one of the organisations that have been against the signing of the EPAs.

MEJN executive director Andrew Kumbatira told IPS that, ‘‘the government should not sign this trade agreement in its current form. Critical issues of development and supply side constraints have not been addressed to Malawi’s satisfaction’’.

He said Malawi would need a capital injection of up to 5.7 billion euros to counter the supply-side constraints and other adjustment costs if it were to benefit from the proposed EPA trading framework.

‘‘But there are no clear agreements in the current form of the EPA on how these resources will be made available to us,’’ said Kumbatira.

Without the resources, Malawi would be fully exposed to the shocks that take place in the commodities markets from time to time.

Kumbatira also said the EU wants to tie Malawians into an agreement that reduces the country’s policy space to consider other and more profitable economic agreements with other regions.

‘‘Asia is an upcoming major economic power which might potentially be a better alternative for Malawi,’’ said Kumbatira. He was worried that Malawi was being asked, under the EPAs, to liberalise 80 percent of all its trade with the EU.

‘‘This means that the Malawian market will be put in direct competition with the European market. This will be very unfair for our small country as we are just an emerging economy. The EPAs could easily destroy the great potential to grow we have.’’

Interestingly, Malawi’s parliamentary committee on trade had already approved the signing of the interim EPA on trade in goods. The temporary deal is aimed at averting disruption of trade between African countries and the EU, following the expiry of the Cotonou Agreement at the end of last year.

The signing of the EPAs was initially slated for the end of last year but ministers from the Eastern and Southern Africa (ESA) region, of which Malawi is part, said at the ESA-European Commission ministerial negotiating meeting in Brussels in November last year that it was not practical to do so.

Kumbatira said at the Brussels meeting African leaders called for more work in the negotiations until they can be reviewed.

‘‘Through the African Union, African leaders underlined the importance of trade and development cooperation to the partnership they share with the EU.

‘‘They stated that now more than ever, Africa needs economic partnerships that will see its people grow in economic power, and living standards commensurate to their dignity as human beings,’’ said Kumbatira.