Down memory lane, on 19 January 2016 Sungeni Zangaphee (not her real name) woke up to shocking news that in her village in Neno, four elderly people were murdered in cold blood for being suspected to be witches.
Police said the mob justice unleashed on the deceased followed the death of a 17-year-old girl who was struck by lightning. Police in Neno said a medical report showed that the girl died of high voltage discharged by lightning. Geologists say hilly areas like Chimbalanga Village in Neno are prone to lightning strikes and the National Geographic website says the earth receives over 100 lightning strikes every second as a result of atmospheric imbalances. This scientific knowledge eluded some members of Chimbalanga Village who resorted to physical violation of the rights of the four elderly persons.
The United Nations (UN) Principles for Older Persons (OHCHR) states that “Older persons should be able to live in dignity and security and be free of exploitation and physical or mental abuse.”
Goat pass-on strategy helping the elderly to earn income
The Neno murders received condemnation nationwide, however, impunity and abuse of the elderly kept surging.
In August 2022, One Marita Phiri was killed by unknown members of some traditional cult in Ntchisi. She was accused of having a hand in the death of a woman in the nearby Masache Village in the same district. According to police records, her accusers believed that Phiri killed the other woman using witchcraft.
In Southern Region, an elderly woman identified as Lignet Chapule of Milepa Village in Chiradzulu had her left leg amputated after she was severely beaten by an angry mob accusing her of being a witch. Her daughter, Kusala Kadewere, narrated the ordeal to MBC with a broken.
“I was selling vegetables at a nearby market, suddenly my niece came running saying ‘anthu akuwamenya agogo’ (people are beating grandmother). I rushed but was a bit late because by the time I arrived her left leg was badly fractured which led to the amputation,” moaned Kadewere.
Still, in Chiradzulu, one Tereza Bester of Mpama Village has a share of atrocities elderly people are facing in the country, after getting harassed on several occasions on accusations of practising witchcraft she thought of reporting the issues to the police. Instead of protecting her police dumped her at Chichiri Prison where she spent a good three years of incarceration without trial. On her release, she said: “I was told by officers on duty that I should stay well with my neighbours, that’s all I was told.”
Bester got imprisoned for three years
Commenting on Bester’s predicament, one Human Rights Lawyers working for the Center for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance (CHREAA), Ruth Kaima, expressed disappointment with Bester’s ordeal.
“What happened was a total violation and disregard of human rights. Bester was supposed to be protected but authorities used another approach which led to the violation of her human rights. It’s wrong to keep one in prison for three years without trial,” said Kaima.
Statistics sourced from police stations indicate that from January 1 to August 2022, 17 elderly persons were brutally murdered across Malawi and 35 injured got serious injuries in the same period on suspicion to be witches or wizards.
The 2018 National Statistical Office Report titled ‘Characteristics of Older Persons’ indicates that the number of older persons in Malawi is increasing. NSO indicates that the population of the elderly in the country has doubled from 473, 890 in 1987 to 891,850 in 2018. The report projects the country to have 2.5 million elderly persons by 2050.
This growing number of older persons raises a need for deliberate policies and strategic decisions to be made for the welfare of the elderly.
The 2016 National Policy for Older Persons outlines key challenges that the elderly face in the country including; difficulties to access healthcare services.MBC took an interest to zero in on the aforementioned point. On the Medical Aid Society of Malawi (MASM) website, exclusions section, MBC Online finds out that all persons over 55 Years are barred from joining any of the society’s medical schemes.
Secondly, older persons have challenges sourcing and eating nutritious food. This is compounded by their marginalization and exclusion from most socio-economic activities based on their age.
The report further highlights that HIV/AIDS has compounded challenges for the elderly as they struggle to raise orphans left by their deceased children thereby lowering their quality of life.
Roles of the Elderly
As early as 2006 the former President of the country, Professor Bingu wa Mutharika reiterated that the elderly have a space in the socio-economic development of the country and need to be given space as advisors and be appointed in strategic boards of key institutions to act as think tanks. He also formed the Bingu Silver Grey Foundation and created the Ministry of Persons with Disabilities and the Elderly to ensure the rights of the elderly are not trampled upon.
“When you see an elderly person, give them respect…these ‘agogo’ are fountains of wisdom. Our society must learn to respect such senior citizens. However, I hear reports of abuses against senior citizens or the elderly, this nonsense must stop,” said the former President during one of his rallies.
President Hichilema with Panji Kaunda
In Zambia, President Hakainde Hichilema said: “The younger generation should learn from senior citizens before they pass on the baton for leadership. As such I have appointed Panji Kaunda as High Commissioner to Malawi.”
How do we move from here?
One of the advocates for the decent welfare of the elderly in Malawi, Andrew Kavala, has been advocating for universal medical coverage and pension for the elderly. He said ageing is not a curse rather it is a triumph of development hence the need to protect our senior citizens.
Kavala for universal pension for the elderly
“As we talk about Agenda 2030, are we not leaving the elderly behind with poor access to health services and income? Malawi Network for Older Persons (MANEPO) believes that if older persons have to live happily in their golden years, healthcare services should be extended to the elderly in their old age. Secondly and most importantly universal social pension is the only effective instrument for poverty reduction and broader socio-economic development for the elderly,” said Kavala in an interview.
One of the United Nations agencies, the Food and Agriculture Organization in its recent report ‘Social Protection and Ageing in Malawi’ advocates that:
- Opportunities be deliberately created for elderly people who can work so that their dignity and respect should be preserved in their respective communities,
- Government should devise a long-term solution for social protection to support the aged
- Civic education be provided in the communities on the rights of older persons to reduce incidences of abuse of the aged
- Increase allocation and beneficiaries of the social-cash transfer programme.
There’s a need for a bill that holistically captures the needs of the elderly including their socio-protection.
The immediate past Minister of Gender, Patricia Kaliati said the government is committed to passing the National Older Persons Bill.
“The elderly are custodians of our culture they need our total protection. Currently, we are using Social Cash Transfer Programme apart from other interventions to alleviate their suffering. Apart from that we will soon take the National Older Persons Bill to Parliament,” said Kaliati.
The United Nations (UN) in the spirit of the 2030 agenda also advocates that countries should stop looking at older persons as just a vulnerable section of society. The UN in its publication, Ageing, Older Persons and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development says, “Now is the time to stop treating older persons as vulnerable group. Older persons must be recognized as active agents of societal development to achieve truly transformative, inclusive and sustainable development outcomes. This calls for promotion and protection of older persons in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.
Until these promises, pledges and commitments and calls to action are fulfilled, Zangaphee’s dread of the golden years will suck her hope to age in a society that doesn’t respect the rights of the elderly.