In the last but one issue of Weekend Nation, Off the Shelf carried an article which among other issues suggested that rapists and defilers should first be sent to mental hospital for assessment before incarcerating them. The article was responding to the disheartening stories of rapes and defilements in our country which has seen gender activists and many others responding through a series of demonstrations over this extremely sad trend.
A group of Malawian mental health workers comprising psychiatrists, a clinical psychologist and a clinical social worker have responded to the article. In the interest of fairness we publish the gist of their response:
“We are in agreement that rape and defilement are evil acts committed by criminals. … The article further states: ‘until we know not just why there is a rise in rape and defilement cases, but more importantly why some men steep so low as to get involved in rape and defilement, we will not know how best to fight the vices. Why, for example, should convicted rapists and defilers go to prison and not to the mental hospital?’ This suggests that convicted defilers and rapists should be sent to Zomba Mental hospital first and not the police!
To suggest that these criminals should go to Zomba Mental Hospital, one of the facilities that provides treatment and healing to some patients, where the predisposing, precipitating and perpetuating factors of their illness may be sexual abuse is most unfortunate and uncalled for.
Furthermore, suggesting that these criminal acts are as a result of mental illness diverts the discussion away from the violence against women and girls. It undermines the lived physical and psychological trauma that these women experience. It shifts the narrative from creating a safe environment for victims that gender activists have aptly taken on, to creating a ‘safe space’, for criminals to hide behind. It creates room for criminals to potentially not face the legal consequences of their actions. These criminal acts should be defined as what they are, criminal acts with no regard to the lives of women and girls.
The article equates criminality to mental illness. Since time immemorial, people who suffer from mental illness are stigmatised. Statements such as those made by the article sadly perpetuate stigma against innocent people afflicted by mental illness, not by choice or design: mental illness can affect anyone. We, therefore, would like to condemn the views expressed by the author in the strongest possible manner.
Let’s promote mental health for all, and not write articles that stigmatise minorities. One of the hallmarks of a civilized society, and the measure of that society’s humanity is how they treat their most vulnerable. People living with mental illness are among the most vulnerable of individuals in Malawi. ‘Mindset change’ has been topical in Malawi over the past weeks: it is high time that the Malawian community become reflective about their stigmatising attitudes toward mental illness and the harms these perpetuate.
Rapists and defilers are criminals who belong to the justice system! They inflict physical and emotional pain on the victims, who though the physical wounds may heal, are sadly left with emotional scars that may last for years after the incident. This results in a varying range of impairment in their physical, emotional, financial, relational, social and many others aspects of wellbeing, something that most people may not be aware of.
There is need for the public to understand that the majority of criminal acts, inclusive of rape and defilement, are conducted by ‘normal’ or ‘sane’ people. A very minute proportion of all criminal acts are conducted by people with various types of mental illness. Only in these exceptional cases, should perpetrators be diverted to mental health services to determine if indeed they have an underlying mental illness, and if the illness diminishes their criminal responsibility. We would therefore ask the media and other social commentators to refrain from writing articles that serve to perpetuate stigma and negative stereotypes toward vulnerable individuals who are living with mental illness.—Dr Olive Liwimbi, Dr Kazione Kulisewa, Dr Saulos Gondwe, (Psychiatrists) Dr Chiwoza Bandawe, Ms Thandie Mkandawire (clinical social worker)