Last Updated 3 October 2018

Malawi is a landlocked state in southern central Africa, a former British colony, with an estimated population of  17.4 million people, from several ethnic groupings. Constitutionally it is a multi-party democracy. One of Africa’s poorest countries, agriculture forms the backbone of the economy. The spread of HIV/Aids remains a particular concern. Malawi has experienced some growth and political stability, but this remain fragile.

Systemic Discrimination
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Constitution and government

The Constitution includes a statement about the protection of human rights, including freedom of expression, freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief, and academic freedom (Chapter IV, Constitution of the Republic of Malawi). These rights are generally respected by the government.

Article 68 of the constitution reserves 32 out of 80 seats in the Senate for various sectors of society including (1.c.iii) representatives of “religion, who shall include representatives of the major religious faiths in Malawi”, apparently to the exclusion of representatives of secular worldviews and minority religious groups.

According to the 2010 Demographic and Health Survey (DHS), 86 percent of the population identifies as Christian and 13 percent as Muslim. There are small numbers of active secularists.

Malawi Association for Secular Humanism (ASH) is a prominent secular group which has received funding, from the Norwegian Government, for its innovative and important work on witchcraft.

“This is a secular country where all philosophies of life are welcome and we are confident that government will continue upholding secular philosophies as provided for in the constitution.”

— George Thindwa, Executive Director, ASH

Education and children’s rights

Religious instruction is mandatory in public primary schools and is available as an elective in public secondary schools. According to the constitution, eliminating religious intolerance is a goal of education.

In some schools, the religious curriculum is a Christian-oriented “Bible knowledge” course, while in others it is an interfaith “moral and religious education” course drawing from the Christian, Islamic, Hindu, and Baha’i faiths. At grant-aided schools, a board appointed by the school’s operators decides whether the “Bible knowledge” or the “moral and religious education” curriculum will be used.

Malawi has ratified most international conventions on child labour; however a recent report criticises the use of child labour in the tobacco industry and the trafficking of children to fish in Tanzania.

Family, community and society

Malawi ASH challenges witchcraft  as an un-evidenced superstition often resulting in abuse and persecution for those accused of “witchcraft”. The association secured funding to run a large project, protecting “witchcraft’s” true victims: those accused of being “witches”. Malawi ASH researches cases of witchcraft-based violence and in particular has worked to highlight the role of police in upholding or undermining the human rights of those accused of witchcraft:

Belief in witchcraft in Malawi has lead to a number of mob attacks on people accused of vampirism in recent years. A wave of attacks in late 2017 resulted in the deaths of eight people.

Though Christianity is the largest religion many conventional rituals are still practiced. Some Christian men in Malawi practice polygamy, which has been linked to the prevalence of HIV. The Malawian justice system does not provide protections to women who were infected by their spouses.


Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

The Malawi Penal Code (Ch.14, 127 & 130) contains clauses that punish acts insulting religion and writing or uttering words that intend to hurt religious feelings.

The Malawi Penal Code prohibits “carnal knowledge against the order of nature”, attempts to commit “carnal knowledge against the order of nature”, and acts of “gross indecency”. Attempts to relax laws against homosexuality have been frustrated in large part by the response of Malawi churches.  In April 2015 a new Marriage law banned same-sex marriage and unions.

There are examples of limited freedom of expression, and ASH’s survival (and known opposition to the laws on homosexuality are an example). The advocacy of humanist views maybe best illustrated by the following example (albeit from 2012). During the country’s debate on legalizing homosexuality,  lawyer Wapona Kita criticized the national anthem, which makes deferential reference to God.

“Wapona Kita, of the law firm Ralph and Arnolds Associates, told a Young Politicians Union (YPU) radio programme on Trans World Radio on Friday [September, 2012] that by making reference to God in the opening stanza, atheists or person who do believe in God would be justified to challenge the anthem’s constitutionality in a court of law. “The Malawi Constitution is the supreme law of the land and it clearly is secular and provides for such freedoms as worship and conscience meaning persons who believe in God have exactly the same rights as those who don’t,” Kita explained in response to a question from listener.

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