Malawi police this week announced that recorded cases of rape in the country have more than doubled since 2018, with young girls as the main victims. Law enforcement authorities blame superstitious beliefs that defiling a minor brings luck or wealth for the rise in rape and sexual assault. But clinical psychologists say mental health is more to blame.
Spokesperson for Malawi Police Service James Kadadzera expressed particular concern over the substantial rise in cases of rape against minors compared to cases involving adults.
“As far as rape is concerned, in 2020 though we are remaining with December to wrap up the year, we have already registered 423 cases. However, statistics to do with defilement [are] very alarming. In 2020, though we are not yet done with December, we have already registered 1,738 cases,” Kadadzera said.
Local media in Malawi have recently been awash with news on rape, incest and defilement.
Figures from the National Statistics Office show that for the last three months of this year alone, the rate of sexual abuse cases has been 35% higher than the same period last year.
This forced Malawi President Lazarus Chakwera last week to announce strict measures against perpetrators.
In a recent incident, police arrested a 31-year-old man in Zomba district accused of raping a five-month-old baby on November 25.
This came a few weeks after police in Blantyre arrested a man for allegedly raping a two-year-old female child, killing her and dumping her body in a black plastic bag.
Kadadzera said police investigations have revealed that more men sleep with minors largely because of superstitions that if one sleeps with a minor that person would get cured from chronic disease, get rich or promoted at work.
Dr. Chiwoza Bandawe, a professor of Clinical Psychology at Malawi College of Medicine, says that mental and societal issues are to blame.
He said the rise in sexual assault cases could be a combination of mental health problems and men’s tendency in the country to have dominance over women.
“There is also what we call pedophilia to young children. So that might also be a possibility that some might find young children attractive but figures as to how many, we don’t actually know because there have not been those detailed psychological profiles of perpetrators,” Bandawe said.
Nevertheless, women rights campaigners have proposed criminalization of all traditional practices that perpetrate sexual assault on women and girls.
Rachel Warren, a lecturer in Anthropology at Catholic University, says it is not easy for Malawi just like other African societies to move away from superstition-driven crimes.
“No, it will not end. It’s part of our belief systems that actually exist among us. They are entrenched in us. So, it’s just a matter of knowing how to control it because what we have is more of a ‘habitization’ of the system where our traditional beliefs are still entrenched in what we carry on with life,” Warren said.
Police spokesperson Kadadzera said besides arresting perpetrators, police have partnered with traditional leaders in a national awareness campaign against sexual abuse of women and girls.