Events that happened recently in Chimbalanga Village in Neno District where four elderly people were murdered in cold blood on suspicion that they killed a 17-year-old girl through witchcraft is unfortunate and alarming.
Yet, within a few weeks of this event, the media reported another four elderly people who were in custody in Phalombe for allegedly practising witchcraft. These events and many others that go unreported in our country show how rampant ageism is in Malawi. This kind of ageism that Malawians are practising could be as a result of lack of knowledge as well as inability to appreciate that we all are ageing and ultimately we will need other people to care for us in old age.
Demographic projections for Malawi indicate a growth in the number and proportion of older people in the population, which will have significant effects on the economy and society. Above six percent of the population in Malawi are elderly people, according to National Statistical Office (NSO), 2009. The fact that at any point in time we will always have an ageing population should make the abuse of and violence against older people a major concern. The situation is complicated by the negative perceptions of ageing and old age ingrained in society which make the inclusion of older people in various aspects of social life difficult. The complexity of the phenomenon of violence and abuse requires an assessment of the condition of older people as a social group.
According to the United Nations, abuse of the elderly is “a single or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person”.
Therefore, abuse is defined in relation to a person’s physical, psychological and social wellbeing. On the other hand, violence is defined as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.” (Missing Voices: Views of Older Persons on Elderly Abuse, WHO/ INPEA, 2002).
There is increased awareness in Malawi now of the violence and abuse being carried out against the elderly. We need to know that the elderly themselves would rarely report acts of violence related to witchcraft accusation as it would be perceived as something shameful, and it would likely lead to stigmatisation and social disapproval. We ought to thank the media for reporting these malpractices so that as a country we should take measures to stop these abuses
Malawi has a strong belief in witchcraft and unfortunately, we have heard of the elderly being wrongfully accused of teaching children the same. We should be aware that if an older person is found wandering about, be it in the streets, graveyard or around villages, it could be dementia which is associated with forgetfulness and not witchcraft.
According to different studies, the stigmatisation of older people, seeing them as weak and a burden on society is what often leads to their mistreatment. The factors that determine abuse and violence include age, low standard of living and education, physical inability, poor level of information, living with dependent relatives, intolerance due to prejudices and stereotypes
To address abuse and violence against older people, there is need to promote a positive attitude towards the elderly by defining them as an active part of the population representing significant social, economic and cultural potential.
More importantly, there is need to raise awareness among the elderly on their rights, increase the level of their protection and provide them with better legal assistance.
These interventions will need to be spearheaded by various stakeholders including government, non-governmental organisations, churches and community-based organisations.
We need a vibrant nation-wide sensitisation campaign programme on issues affecting the elderly. n