Since 2004, Malawi has enacted many laws aimed at protecting women in a drive to achieve gender equity and equality. But how does our society—the people and the law enforcers—know about such laws?
It was a small, but quite a rare interface. Women and Law in Southern Africa (Wlsa) recently held a public debate in Thyolo District to assess how much duty bearers (officials) and rights holders (local people) in the district understand gender-related laws enacted in the country.
The debate was part of the Oxfam-funded project which Wilsa is implementing in Thyolo and Mulanje districts to assess effective implementation of gender-related laws in the country.
The background is that since 2000, government has enacted three laws aimed at entrenching gender issues in the country. They include: Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (PVA), Gender Equality Act and Wills and Inheritance Act.
During the debate, the district’s duty bearers—which included the magistrate Mtunduwatha Mpasu, Reverend Washington Mbalame, Group Village Head Likulu, district wills and inheritance officer Ester Nyerere, district community service officer Maggie Mmeya and Lyold Kachosa from police—took various questions from rights holders.
To the question: “How do you, as duty bearers, understand the gender-related laws enacted since 2000?” the answers were familiar though surprising.
As people whose offices are critical in applying these enacted laws, it was surprising, save for the magistrate, to note that though they were all aware of them, none among them has had access to all of them. Their access was quite selective.
Some, for instance VH Likulu, came to understand these laws just four months ago after a Wlsa training.
For Kachosa, the police officer who is supposed to enforce these laws, he only had access to PVA and the Wills and Inheritance Act. He is yet to have an eye on the Gender Equality Act—which he argues he only hears on the radio. He adds that he accessed the two, and came to know about them, while studying at Zomba Police College.
“We have the PVA and the Wills and Inheritance Act at our offices. But it was mostly our effort to get it. When domestic cases are presented to us and we do not have the new legislation, we often use the Penal Code to help,” he says.
From the district council, Nyerere says she only knows about the Wills and Inheritance Act because her office mostly deals with property management in families.
Mbalame, from the church, notes that they, too, apart from the training they received from Wilsa, had little knowledge about these laws. He adds that as church they make it point to understand the limit of religious influence on gender-based violence (GBV).
However, magistrate Mpasu says his office has all these laws. But he notes that, indeed, many duty bearers do not have enough knowledge about these laws.
The challenge to have access to these enacted laws is not just in Thyolo. Wlsa national coordinator Mzati Mbeko says most duty bearers in the country—the people who are supposed to put these laws into practice—do not have sufficient knowledge to new laws when enacted.
“This is affecting the delivery of justice in the country—especially rural areas. It is costly for government to develop a law. However, law development alone is not enough to solve the problem. We need to put these laws into practice. But this cannot happen if people responsible on the ground do not have knowledge of these laws,” he says.
Mbeko fears that if duty bearers, those deemed to be educated and enlightened, do not have sufficient knowledge about these laws, what about the local people?
Often, according to Janet Mungira from Bvumbwe in Thyolo, local people fail to report to relevant offices when faced with GBV.
“In the first place, they do not know that being beaten, even by your husband, is illegal. Secondly, even when they know, they do not know where to take that case to.
“And lastly, even when they know where to take the case to, they end up being frustrated by duty bearers who, because they too do not understand the law, sends them back to ankhoswe [marriage counsellor]. As a result, even when legal redemption is there, most women die in silence,” she says.
So, what should be done?
Mpasu notes that there is need for government to work closely with non-governmental organisations to ensure that when a law has been enacted, there should be continous stakeholder meeting to enlighten people about it.
Even Nyerere concurs, saying: “When a law has been changed, or a new one has been enacted, it takes time to reach implementers. We need to be the first to know about it because we are the ones that puts it into practice.”
On his part, Mbeko says, drivSen by the problem, Wlsa is training local people in Thyolo and Mulanje to enlighten them about these laws.
“We cannot reach to everyone. We mostly target opinion leaders in a community. We feel we need to work with government and other stakeholders so that our efforts go far and wide,” he says.
Spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice, Apoche Itimu, only says they work on bills following instructions from either the Law Commission or client ministries.
“It is them [Law Commission] that bears the responsibility of sensitising the public. In fact before Cabinet approves, they have to be shown that due consultations were made.
“After enacting the laws, it is again the client ministries that hold sensitisation programmes,” she says.