Older People are not a problem but part of a possible solution
On a regular basis, elderly men and women in Malawi fall victim to accusations of practicing witchcraft. Most of them are among the worst hit by poverty and lack of access to social and economic services, for many, life is generally miserable. Why is it that despite campaigns for the protection of the elderly, they are still targeted for victimization? Are the elderly the outcast that we tend to look at them to be? Serah Chilora spoke with Andrew Kavala, country director for Malawi Network of Older Person's Organizations on these and other issues

1.    Why is MANEPO’s core mandate?

MANEPO’s mandate is to help older men and women claim their rights, challenge discrimination, and overcome poverty, so that they can lead dignified, secure, active and healthy lives in Malawi. Therefore, MANEPO’s core existence is essentially for the well-being of older men and women. 

2.    An older man aged 79 from T/A Mkukula in Dowa district just got killed in the week on witchcraft related accusations. Why are these cases on the increase despite the existence of the Witchcraft Act of 1911?  

The Constitution of Malawi protects the fundamental right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought and belief. The Witchcraft Act of 1911 was promulgated to prevent arrest and trials of people accused of practicing witchcraft. Such arrests are also a violation of the Constitutional right to freedom of belief.

One of the reasons MANEPO and other key stakeholders have been advocating for the amendment of the 1911 Witchcraft, specifically for the repeal of Section 6 is that law enforcement officers, often with their own beliefs in the existence of witchcraft, fail to implement section 4 of the Witchcraft Act which allows them to arrest and sentence anyone who accuses another person of being a witch. Instead, Section 6 of the Witchcraft Act is often erroneously used by the justice administration structures, to arrest and convict victims of witchcraft-based accusations, which states that arrests can be made based on a confession to an accusation of witchcraft. It has been found that, in most cases, older men and women are often made to confess under duress when they do not understand the seriousness of the charges against them and often unable to defend themselves in a court of law. The burden of proof therefore lies on the accused.

We are glad that the Malawi Law Commission, an independent constitutional body charged with reviewing existing laws and making recommendations on amending them to conform to the Malawi Constitution and international law, is currently undertaking the amendment process.

Belief in witchcraft in Malawi is deep-rooted and widespread, permeating all levels of society regardless of age, educational background, social position, economic status or ethnic origin. Witchcraft is used to explain virtually anything that is suspicious or difficult to rationalise such as sudden illness, death, failure to conceive, etc. Those accused and violently discriminated against on the grounds that they practice witchcraft are typically the most vulnerable and marginalized community members. They have little or no access to income, finance or property, and as such, largely dependent of the support and goodwill of their immediate or extended family to meet their basic needs – most notably older men and women. Therefore, the elderly are disproportionately accused of witchcraft due to the weaker status in society.

3.     What strategies has Manepo put in place to ensure older people are not living in fear?

As an institution working on ageing issues in Malawi, MANEPO engages with key stakeholders, namely: the media, police, community leaders to ensure there is an improved understanding and awareness of the challenges faced by older people in accessing justice to combat the abuse, violence, and discrimination the elderly face in Malawi. MANEPO also supports community action at both local and national levels to promote older person’s rights in partnership with relevant government ministries, departments and agencies, as well as other civil society actors. We are also lobbying with Parliament to adopt and pass the Old Age pension Bill. Evidence from across the region shows that, with money in their pockets, older men and women have their dignity and status restored at community level, thereby reducing the escalation of such rights violations.

4.     MANEPO has been advocating for Old Age Pension scheme. Once implemented, will this scheme not a drain on our meagre resources?

Minimum social protection floors are increasingly recognized as a necessary and effective approach to ensure the benefits of development are shared fairly, and no one is left behind. This issue is no more relevant than for older men and women who, despite the contribution they have made throughout their lives, often struggle to secure an income. Old age pension schemes have proven to be a successful approach to ensure income security for older people and their families, particularly in low-income agricultural economies, like Malawi, where the role of contributory pensions is more limited.

It is a misconception to insinuate that such a scheme is a drain on our meagre resources. Once implemented, a universal pension scheme would contribute to a range of Malawi’s wider national development objectives (articulated in the MGDS III), and progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. A microsimulation shows that such a scheme could halve the poverty rate of households with older people and reduce the poverty gap by two thirds. A universal pension would also create multipliers within the households and the wider community. There is strong international evidence of how pensions can reduce child poverty and rates of child-labour, and boost school enrolment. The extra cash being pumped into rural communities would also catalyse efforts towards agricultural development. Such a scheme would also provide a long-term tool to systematically share the proceeds of growth amongst society, and thus contain levels of inequality. 

5.    With regards to the elderly, is MANEPO satisfied with the COVID-19 response?

It is not a hidden secret that the deadly COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause untold fear, misery and suffering among older men and women.  This grim reality highlights the specific challenges and needs faced by older persons in this health crisis and the need to plan and implement a response that is informed, inclusive and targeted.

Public discourses around Covid-19 continue to portray it as a disease of older people and this has led to social stigma and exacerbate negative stereotypes regarding older men and women. Social stigma in the context of a health outbreak can result in people being labelled, stereotyped, discriminated against, treated differently, and/or experience loss of status because of a perceived link with a disease, which can negatively affect those with the disease, as well as their caregivers, family, and communities.

Unfortunately, all this is happening when social security systems in our country, are entirely inadequate, with vast majority of people, including the elderly, people with disabilities and children, are unable to access any form of income support from government to address their economic needs and challenges.

6.    Anything you may wish to add?

I would like to remind all Malawians that ageing is a process of life which, all factors constant, will catch up with everyone. As a nation, we need a fundamental policy and attitudinal shift on ageing and old age to reflect and promote the contributions of older persons to the Malawian society. Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of ageing, public debates and policies must promote older persons as a solution to many development challenges Malawi is facing.

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