Victims’ Voices Leading the Way: Holding Perpetrators Accountable For Sex Trafficking In Malawi
Despite strong legislation, victims of sex trafficking in Malawi continue to face barriers to accessing justice, with the few cases that do make it to court plagued by long delays, due to unjustified adjournments and canceled hearings.
And cases are on the rise, with the economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic pushing many families deeper into poverty, leaving women and girls more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence. Prior to the pandemic, our partner in Malawi, People Serving Girls at Risk (PSGR), received around two to three sex trafficking case referrals every week, this has spiraled to seven or more.
Malawi is a source, destination, and transit country for sex trafficking, with traffickers often luring those who are vulnerable and living in poverty by promising to provide them with education and employment opportunities. Sexually exploited girls and women may be put to work as "bar girls" at local bars and rest houses and then coerced to have sex with customers. Women and girls are also trafficked along major transport routes by truck drivers who falsely promise them schooling, marriage, and jobs in South Africa, which is a final destination but also a transit point for trafficking to Europe. Such criminal activity generates high profits and comes with a low risk of being prosecuted.
Malawi’s laws on sex trafficking
Malawi has stringent laws around trafficking and exploitation, including the 2015 Trafficking in Persons Act which criminalizes sex and labor trafficking, and prescribes punishment of up to 14 years’ imprisonment for offenses involving an adult victim and up to 21 years’ imprisonment for those involving a child victim.
Malawi is also a state party to several international human rights treaties, including CEDAW, the Palermo Protocol, and the Maputo Protocol, which place obligations on the government to protect women and girls from sexual exploitation and trafficking. In November 2020, the United Nations Universal Periodic Review of Malawi, assessed, among other issues, Malawi’s record on addressing sex trafficking. Key recommendations included:
- Continue to fight against human trafficking and its root causes, as well as against the sexual exploitation of women and girls, in accordance with targets 5.2 and 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals, by setting up programs to increase skills and women’s income.
- Prioritize prosecution of sex trafficking and conclude the cases within a reasonable time, as well as providing training to judges, prosecutors, and security forces.
- Ensure the protection of victims of trafficking by prioritizing access to justice for victims and the effective prosecution of the perpetrators of such acts.
A failure to prosecute
In 2020, our partner, PSGR, handled over 600 cases of sex trafficking. This is just the tip of the iceberg, as many more cases are not reported or documented. Malawi has some good legislation relating to trafficking but there is a general failure to effectively implement these laws. The few cases that do make it to court often languish with very little progress made due to multiple court delays and canceled hearings. PSGR, with support from Equality Now, is currently pursuing a case that has stalled at the pre-trial stage for over three years.
These shortcomings are reflected in data. Despite numerous indications about the extent of the problem, according to the US 2020 Trafficking in Persons report, the Malawi Police Services reported the arrest of 48 suspects on trafficking-related charges and the prosecution and conviction of only 30 traffickers. This failure to hold perpetrators accountable creates a culture of impunity and denies women and girls the justice and protection they deserve.
Malawi's government and state authorities must do more to address the mounting problem of trafficking for sexual exploitation. This includes holding perpetrators accountable in a timely manner, thus ensuring survivors have access to justice they are entitled to.
Victims’ Voices Leading the Way
On August 13, 2021, PSGR and Equality Now hosted “Victims' Voices Leading the Way”, a panel discussion aimed at highlighting Malawi’s obligations to address sex trafficking and hold perpetrators to account in Malawi.
The event brought together survivors, civil society organizations, and policy actors to discuss concrete steps that policymakers should undertake to ensure that survivors of sex trafficking access justice and perpetrators are held accountable in line with Malawi’s national law and international obligations.
Hosted by PSGR Executive Director, Caleb Ng'ombo, the panel included:
- Habiba Osman – Executive Director, Malawi Human Rights Commission
- Trevor Hamela – Deputy Director of Child Affairs, Ministry of Gender
- Kondwani Kamanga – Trafficking in Persons Desk Officer, Ministry of Homeland Security
- Caleb Thole – National Coordinator, Malawi Network against Trafficking
- Yvonne Oyieke – Human Rights Advocate, End Sex Trafficking Program, Equality Now
Mrs Margaret Ali, Chairperson of the PSGR Board, noted the general lack of awareness on human trafficking, impacting the government’s ability to respond appropriately. She underscored the need to include survivor voices and views in all discussions and programs aimed at ending human trafficking, including for sexual exploitation.
The Malawi Human Rights Commission highlighted the vulnerabilities that render certain groups of people more likely to be trafficked, such as age and social status. These vulnerabilities have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic which has impacted livelihoods and plunged more people into poverty. Women and girls have been disproportionately affected.
Therefore, adopting robust prevention strategies was identified as essential in responding to human trafficking in Malawi. This would include undertaking mass awareness-raising at community and institutional levels.
Key commitments made by the representative Ministries and institutions on the panel include:
- The Ministries of Homeland Security and Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare shall undertake intensified awareness programs on human trafficking and equip survivors and victims with a range of skills to mitigate their vulnerabilities. Survivors at the event strongly requested both Ministries to undertake thorough consultations during training design and planning so that the programs reflect the needs and aspirations of trafficked persons.
- The Ministries of Homeland Security and Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare propose to introduce specialized Trafficking in Persons mobile courts to enhance access to justice and expedite the hearing of trafficking cases.
- The Ministry of Homeland Security shall facilitate training of prosecutors and magistrates on human trafficking, its various manifestations, the legal framework for addressing the problem and promotion of the rights of victims and survivors.
- The Malawi Network Against Trafficking shall increase the capacity of its members to engage the government to deliver on its commitments and obligations under international human rights law.
With survivors' voices leading the way it is hoped that these and the other actions committed by the various institutions represented, will go a long way towards ensuring justice for victims of trafficking, including for sexual exploitation.