[Member Spotlight] Centre for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance (CHREAA)

Legal Empowerment in Practice: Criminal Justice & Malawi

This member spotlight features an interview with @SiphiweMalihera, Head of Paralegal Programmes and Monitoring and Evaluation Officer for Centre for Human Rights, Education, Advice and Assistance (CHREAA) in Malawi.

Thematic focus: Criminal Justice

Adoption of legal empowerment approach: 2002

What is your organization’s mission?

To promote and protect human rights by assisting vulnerable and marginalised people in Malawi to access justice through civic education, advocacy, legal advice and assistance.

What kind of issues does your legal empowerment work address?

In Malawi, like in many other former colonies, outdated petty offence laws remain on the statute books, essentially criminalizing non-criminal behaviour and inordinately targeting the poor and marginalized. These offences have their roots in the age of Empire law-making, through which foreign powers sought to control and segregate local populations. Imposed decades ago they continue to make the lives of Malawi’s most marginalized constituencies more hazardous, long after being repealed in the United Kingdom where they originated. These include laws either prohibiting or criminalizing loitering, being a “rogue and a vagabond,” having no “ostensible means of assistance,” or being “idle and disorderly.” Vague, disproportionate and arbitrary in nature, these offences are routinely used to target sex workers, street children, the poor and homeless, LGBTI people, hawkers, people with substance use problems, and others.

How are you using legal empowerment to address the problems?

CHREAA is implementing two interrelated programs: decriminalization of colonial era offences; and promotion of sex workers’ rights. We are running a campaign to decriminalize minor offences that target marginalized groups including the homeless, hawkers, persons with disabilities, drug-users and sex workers. Likewise, we equip these groups to challenge unlawful arrests and police abuses, and to secure better health care. In 2017 we secured a landmark judgement, declaring the Victorian-era offence of being a rogue and vagabond unconstitutional and invalid.

CHREAA paralegals have built a network of allies within the government, the judiciary, civil society, and the media and have successfully placed this issue on the national agenda. We are working with the Chief State Advocate on developing Prosecutorial Guidelines on petty offences and with the Inspector General of Police to reform their training curriculum. Sex workers are profoundly affected by these laws. Criminalization increases stigma, driving them away from health and other services. We work with sex workers at individual and structural levels, providing emergency legal services, training and holding the police and judiciary accountable, and building capacity within the sex worker movement. We have also successfully built a cadre of sex worker paralegals who train others on their rights.

Is there an aspect of your legal empowerment work that is particularly innovative?

In terms of concrete innovations, CHREAA has recorded the bail application procedure in all local languages and installed radios in various police station and court holding cells. In this way, even with the absence of paralegals, the people in conflict with the law are able to make a bail application on their own. Through this work, CHREAA has assisted 13,000 prisoners. CHREAA has also built a good rapporteur with sex workers through an interactive space called ‘happy hour.’ Through this space CHREAA has social interaction with sex workers and they share their experiences and challenges they encounter when plying their trade. These spaces are very informal to ensure that sex workers feel supported and empowered to report any abuse they suffer at the hands of the police and others. CHREAA also has a drama group called “Nkhokwe” comprised of ex-prisoners. The drama group conducts legal aid clinics in communities as well as in prisons.

How did you come to use those methods, and how did you gain access to the prisons?

CHREAA has worked over the years with the media to raise awareness and advocate for reform to ensure vulnerable groups are legally empowered. CHREAA has produced documentaries which have been instrumental in bringing out the human face of marginalised groups, i.e. prisoners and sex workers. It was through the use of documentaries that CHREAA was able to effectively advocate for an increase in the prison health budget. CHREAA would encourage partners to build strong networks and partnerships with media and constantly engage them in the implementation of activities. CHREAA has also used litigation as an effective tool in protection of rights. CHEAA engaged in strategic litigation that had an impact on a larger group of people, like in the case of Mayeso Gwanda. CHREAA would therefore advise partners to make use of the courts where there is need to enforce specific rights of vulnerable groups. Advocacy at the regional level is also important since government representatives are also made aware of the issues that are discussed there.

Anneke Meerkotter, the Litigation Director, Southern Africa Litigation Centre had this to say about CHREAA:

“We continue to work with CHREAA because they are professional, accessible, responsive and committed to the human rights of prisoners and marginalised groups in society.” Since its inception CHREAA has assisted a lot of marginalised people to access justice through legal aid clinics and camp courts. As such many to CHREAA as their “only hope for their release or freedom.” In addition to this, the declaration of section 184(1)© of the Penal Code on rogue and vagabond people has made most groups targeted by this law refer to CHREAA as their true human rights defender."

You can learn more by reading this report, authored by Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) and Centre for Human Rights, Education, Advice and Assistance (CHREAA).

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Member Spotlights are short profile articles focusing on members of the Global Legal Empowerment Network. Spotlight articles use case studies to provide useful insights into the work of other network members. Whether you are working in the same country, with similar issues or want to understand new legal empowerment approaches, the Member Spotlight is a useful learning resource. You can read about organizations in our network here (Topics tagged memberspotlight)


Thanks for sharing. It is lesson to me