Women and Justice: Court: High Court of Malawi

Domestic Case Law

Sande v. Sande High Court of Malawi (2009)

Divorce and dissolution of marriage, Property and inheritance rights, Sexual harassment, Stalking

The petitioner sought a divorce from her husband under common law rather than Islamic rite. After several years of marriage, (i) the petitioner discovered that the respondent had lied about being divorced prior to their marriage, (ii) the respondent stopped supporting her financially, and (iii) the respondent neglected their relationship. After she started a business to provide for herself, the respondent employed his former wife’s relatives to “spy and scorn her to leave the house.” The matter was brought to their religious leader, who ordered the couple to three months’ separation to see whether reconciliation was possible. During that period, the respondent lived with his former wife, admitted to other extra-marital relationships, continued to harass the petitioner for conjugal relations, and declared that he did not want her as his wife, which he believed should have legally relieved him of their marriage. The petitioner subsequently applied for divorce in the High Court. The respondent contested adjudicating the matter before the High Court, arguing (i) that the divorce should have been adjudicated by religious leaders rather than a secular court and (ii) that he believed that the marriage was already dissolved given his declaration to his religious leader that he no longer wanted to be married (although no witnesses testified to hearing the respondent pronounce the “talaq” against his wife). The High Court emphasized that courts do not have a monopoly on divorce; for example, couples can divorce by mutual agreement at custom before village civic authorities or other tribunals. However, even in such situations, if one party is wronged or does not consent to the divorce, that party can seek resolution in a secular court. The High Court concluded that the respondent’s alleged “divorce” was not valid, as the respondent had violated the tenets of his faith with his extramarital affairs, harassment of his estranged wife, and lies to lure her into the marriage. Emphasizing the equal status of husband and wife under the Constitution, the Court held that the respondent’s summary declaration of a dissolved marriage in this case, especially as it was unjustified, did not conform to the principles of justice, equality, and morality, and granted the petitioner the divorce under law.

R. v. Makuluni High Court of Malawi (2002)

Sexual violence and rape

The defendant was convicted rape, with the trial court finding that he followed the complainant to her house, suggested sexual intercourse, attacked her when she declined, and raped her. The defendant, a first-time offender, received a sentence of four years’ imprisonment. A judge reviewed the sentence and sent it to the High Court for consideration on the grounds that the sentence necessitated judicial remand due to manifest inadequacy. In concluding the lack of necessity of remand, the High Court reviewed the approach to sentencing for criminal offenses, which must regard the specific circumstances of the offense, the offender and the victim, and the public interest. The High Court discussed a few factors that must be taken into consideration in sentencing in rape cases, namely the victim’s age, the effect of the rape on the victim, and whether the perpetrator i) used violence above the minimum force to commit the rape, ii) used a weapon to intimidate or wound the victim, iii) repeatedly raped the victim, iv) premeditated and planned the rape, v) had previous convictions for sexual or other violent offences, and vi) subjected the victim to additional sexual indignities or perversions. The High Court affirmed precedent suggesting that three years is the minimum sentence for an adult convicted of rape without aggravating or mitigating factors. Specifically, the Court cited English precedent, which suggested five years as the threshold sentence, before citing the Malawi High Court suggesting that the threshold should be three years because of prison conditions in Malawi. In applying precedential sentencing standards to the specific circumstances of the case, the High Court determined that the lower court’s sentence did not qualify as manifestly inadequate, and therefore did not warrant intervention.

R. v. State President & Another High Court of Malawi (2015)

Gender discrimination

The plaintiffs, four members parliament, sought judicial review before the High Court of a decision of the State President to appoint a woman, Mrs. Fiona Kalemba, as the Clerk of Parliament. This occurred against the recommendation of the Parliamentary Service Commission, which had submitted a male candidate who they believed to be the best candidate for the position. The State President wanted three short-listed names for the position, and specified that a woman should be included. The Court affirmed the State President’s decision primarily on the grounds that a recommendation is an advisory action that does not have any binding effect. The Court further considered the possibility that if the President wanted a woman for the position, “reverse” or “positive” discrimination is allowed in Malawi and internationally, and hence would not be a violation of law. There is no requirement of merit as the deciding factor in presidential appointments. The Court denied the plaintiffs’ claim, holding that gender and empowerment of minority groups are relevant considerations that may be taken into account in making presidential appointments.

R. v. Mponda (Child Criminal Review Case No. 8 of 2017) High Court of Malawi (2017)

Statutory rape or defilement, Trafficking in persons

Three minor girls, victims of human trafficking who the defendant lured in with promises of working in a restaurant, but instead sent to work at a bar, appealed their case. When the work conditions turned out to be exploitative, the appellants reported the defendant to the police. The case was appealed to the High Court on the basis that: (i) the case file did not go through the standard process whereby a case is registered in the Criminal Registry then distributed to a Magistrate by a Chief Resident Magistrate, and (ii) the magistrate did not follow proper procedure for the child witnesses’ testimony. In concluding that a proper lower court be assigned to re-hear the matter, the High Court underscored the importance of following legal procedure designed to protect the rights of vulnerable child witnesses. The High Court pointed out a number of procedural protocols, such as ensuring that the child witnesses did not come into direct contact with the accused, making provision for the witness to be accompanied by a supportive figure in court, and considering the possibility of a pre-recorded interview of a child witness as evidence. The court noted that a court competent in handling child witnesses must re-hear the matter, as causing witnesses to endure repeat trials as a result of the failure to follow proper judicial procedure is akin to repeat victimization of such witnesses.

R. v. Yusuf Willy (Criminal Review No. 6 of 2021/Criminal Case No. 183 of 2021) High Court of Malawi (2022)

Custodial violence, Gender discrimination, Sexual violence and rape, Statutory rape or defilement

The defendant was charged the defilement of the complainant, a 17-year-old girl. In his defence, the accused claimed that he could not get an erection (albeit, apparently, only after the magistrate raised the question himself). During the proceedings, a woman stood up in court and volunteered to ascertain whether the accused could obtain an erection. One week later, the magistrate, prosecutor, court interpreter, accused, complainant, and the woman who had volunteered met in the magistrate’s chambers to witness whether the woman could touch the defendant sexually until he obtained an erection. The magistrate observed, after approximately 30 minutes of sexual contact, that the accused’s “penis got a bit hard but not very hard.” Following a complaint from the complainant’s parent, the High Court was requested to review the conduct of the magistrate to determine the veracity of the complaint. At this point, the magistrate had not reached a verdict. By way of a preliminary conclusion, the High Court noted that “this illegal show seemed to come out of the blue” and found that the manner of investigation into the accused’s ability to obtain an erection was “raised by the magistrate, thereby making the [High] Court conclude that there were extra judicial discussions” between the accused and the magistrate. The Court also expressed serious concern about secondary victimisation, given that the sexual act occurred in the presence of the complainant. The Court then outlined its reasons for arriving at its ultimate decision, focusing on two matters: the existence of bias and judicial stereotyping. Regarding the first issue, the Court cited caselaw from across common law jurisdictions and the European Court of Human Rights relating to actual or perceived bias. Regarding the second issue, the Court highlighted the significant dangers associated with gender stereotyping on the part of the judiciary. The Court emphasised that judges should be alive to the concerns of victims of sexual offences, specifically that gender stereotypes harm such victims and contribute to further violations of their rights. Presiding officers are obliged to ensure that the courts offer equal access to men and women. In this context, it was emphasised that it matters not only how judges conduct themselves, but also how their conduct could be perceived during a trial. A judicial officer has to be aware of the negative results of displaying condescension toward women in court. In this case, the complainant was concerned about judicial bias, corruption, and/or collusion with the accused. The decision implied that the magistrate’s conduct could have arisen from his bias against, and stereotyping of, the complainant as a complainant in a sexual offence case. The Court highlighted that the judiciary could not condone the perpetuation of “structural gender-based violence, where courts instill fear in women and girls who are victims of sexual offences, using the criminal justice system.” Therefore, in order to create a discrimination-free judicial system that victims can rely on, it is incumbent on the judiciary to remain cognisant of its own biases and stereotypes, especially in the context of victims of sexual offences, and conduct cases in a manner which counteracts such biases and stereotypes. In conclusion, the High Court ordered a retrial under a different magistrate, and that the complainant and her family be provided with the resources needed to ensure her attendance at court. The Court referred (i) the magistrate’s conduct in the trial and (ii) the wider question of gender bias among judicial officers to the Judicial Service Commission. Finally, the Court recommended that the Chief Justice, through the judiciary’s training committee, should develop training programmes to avoid a matter like this re-occurring in the future.

R. v. Banda & Others High Court of Malawi (2016)

Gender discrimination

A Fourth Grade Magistrate convicted the appellant and 18 other women for knowingly living on prostitution earnings, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of 24 months in prison. In Malawi, Fourth Grade Magistrates’ jurisdiction is limited to cases in which the maximum sentence is 12 months. This jurisdictional limit was the appellants’ first ground of appeal. Despite finding that the appellants succeeded in proving their convictions null and void due to the magistrate’s jurisdictional overreach, the appellate court found it “imperative” to address the appellants’ other arguments because of “the prevalent misuse of section 146 by law enforcement.” The appellants’ second ground of appeal was that Penal Code Section 146, the offence of a woman living on the earnings of prostitution, does not target the sex worker herself, but rather restricts women from exercising influence over the movements of sex workers for monetary gain. Section 145 of the Penal Code addresses men’s criminal behavior toward sex workers. The High Court again agreed with the appellants, concluding that Section 146 of the Penal Code was clearly aimed at targeting those who exploit sex workers, rather than a punitive measure applicable to sex workers themselves. The High Court pointed out that the lower court’s conclusion that the appellants’ convictions rested on the fact that they had booked rooms in a rest house, “conduct which was not criminal at all.” The High Court also expressed concern about how the government obtained the women’s confessions to prostitution, “especially after reading the caution statements.” As a result, the High Court held the trial and convictions of the appellants unconstitutional and predicated on discrimination against women in the sex trade. In conclusion, the judge called for Malawi to have “a frank discussion” about the fact that prostitution-related offences in Malawi “remain an area of blatant discrimination, unfairness, inequality, abuse as well as bias from law enforcement as well as the courts as evidenced in this case.”

Kaliyati v Republic High Court of Malawi (2020)

Statutory rape or defilement

The appellant was convicted and sentenced to eight years imprisonment including hard labor for defilement of an11-month-old girl. On appeal, the appellant’s primary argument was that the testimony of the child’s mother was not sufficiently corroborated and therefore the conviction was not supported by the evidence. He also argued that the sentence was excessive. Regarding the corroboration rule in sexual violence cases, the court announced that it was a longstanding practice based on blatant discrimination against women, who are the predominant victims of such offenses and assumed to be unreliable witnesses. The court found the corroboration rule unlawful under existing constitutional (article 20), evidence, and criminal laws. Instead, the court held that courts should take caution basing convictions on uncorroborated evidence to ensure satisfaction of the burden of proof. Regarding the appellant’s arguments, the court found that there was not sufficient evidence of penetration to sustain the defilement conviction, thus acquitting the appellant of defilement. Instead, the court found that the evidence supported a conviction for the lesser offense of indecent assault, for which the court imposed a sentence of three years of imprisonment out of a maximum of 14 years. The court chose a substantially lower sentence than the maximum due to what it described as mitigating factors, including that: (i) the appellant was a first-time offender; (ii) the child was largely unharmed physically according to the medical report; (iii) there was no evidence that the child would subsequently suffer an STI or psychological impacts; and (iv) the crime was not premeditated in the court’s view, but a crime of opportunity.

Kayira v. State High Court of Malawi (2015)

Statutory rape or defilement

In 2013, the appellant was found having sexual intercourse with the victim, who was 15 years old. The next day the victim told the court that she and the appellant had been in love since June 2011 and that they had a sexual relationship. She testified that they were married and she was his second wife, but Malawi required parental permission for children aged 15-17 to marry (as of 2015, section 14 of the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act requires that parties be 18 years old to marry). Malawi charged the defendant with defilement contrary to Penal Code § 138(1) and indecent assault contrary to § 137(1). Section 138(1) provides, “Any person who unlawfully and carnally knows any girl under the age of sixteen years shall be guilty of a felony and shall be liable to imprisonment to life” (¶ 7.1). In the lower court, the appellant pleaded not guilty arguing that the victim consented to the sexual acts and that she showed him an identification card that she had doctored to state that she was 17 years old at the time. Acknowledging that the victim had changed her year of birth on her identification, the lower court found the appellant guilty on both counts. The appellant filed two grounds of appeal asking: (i) “whether the conviction of the appellant was proper with regard . . . to the circumstances of the case;” and; (ii) “whether the sentences were manifestly excessive considering the” fact the victim had mislead the appellant with respect to her age (¶ 3.1). The High Court upheld the conviction citing the strict liability nature of the crime. The Court noted that the victim was clearly underage at the time of the sexual intercourse and rejected the defendant’s consent defense noting that “girls under the age of . . . [16] are incapable of giving consent due to immaturity (¶ 7.4).” Notwithstanding, the Court reduced the appellant’s sentence to four years for defilement and one year for indecent assault to run concurrently, noting that the appellant did not know that the victim was under age.

The Republic v. Banda, et al. High Court of Malawi (2016)

Gender discrimination, Trafficking in persons

On February 23, 2016, 19 women were arrested by police and jointly charged “for the offence of living on the earnings of prostitution” in violation of § 146 of the Penal Code of Malawi (the “Penal Code”) ( ¶ 1.1). A Fourth Grade Magistrate in Dedza convicted them “on their own plea of guilt” and fined them MK 7,000.00 each (¶ 1.2). The police lacked evidence to prove the charge against them. In addition, the women did not have legal representation during the proceedings, including when their guilty plea was recorded. The women challenged the conviction on July 28, 2016 on numerous grounds including (i) that the Fourth Grade Magistrate did not have jurisdiction, (ii) that the women were charged together when they should have been charged separately, (iii) that the High Court should not have accepted a unanimous plea, (iv) that “the charge was wrong in law as living on the earnings of prostitution does not target the sex worker herself” but those who live parasitically and exploitatively off her earnings, and (v) that the plea of guilty should not be accepted because the court did not comply with mandatory procedures regarding the defendants’ knowledge. The High Court found that the Fourth Grade Magistrate did not have jurisdiction to hear the case. In addition, the Court held that the arrest of the women was unconstitutional and not based on evidence. Citing the legislative history of the offense, the Court clarified that § 146 of the Penal Code did not criminalize sex work but was mainly intended to protect sex workers from those who would exploit them. The High Court held that even though sex workers may be arrested in circumstances under this section, the arrest must be properly supported by evidence. Consequently, the High Court vacated the convictions and ordered that fines be repaid to the women.

Kamwendo v. Republic High Court of Malawi (2004)

Sexual violence and rape

The accused was convicted of rape and sentenced to a custodial term of imprisonment of 18 months. He appeals on the grounds that the lower court erred in convicting him in contradiction of the Medical Report that found it was a fabricated rape. The Court dismissed the appeal finding that the complainant's story was corroborated by the evidence and did not therefore require the Medical Report's corroboration as well and also that the Medical Report is not to be taken as conclusive evidence of penetration. The evidence also showed that the intercourse the appellant had with the complainant was non-consensual because the consent was fraudulently obtained. After this decision, the Malawi High Court banned the corroboration rule in sexual violence cases in Republic v Kaliyati.

Republic v. Chiledzelere High Court of Malawi (2007)

Gender-based violence in general, Sexual violence and rape

The accused was convicted of attempted rape and sentenced to five years imprisonment with hard labor for accosting the complainant and assaulting her with the intent to have intercourse with her before he was prevented from doing so by the arrival of the witness. The appeal was dismissed because the accused's actions in fondling the complainant and tearing her underwear provided clear evidence of his intent. The sentence was upheld because of the aggravating factors that the accused was told that the complainant was a married woman and the traumatic effect of the tearing of the woman's underwear. [Note: International legal standards do not discriminate on the basis of marital status in determining the gravity of a rape.]

Republic v. Hwangwa High Court of Malawi (2008)

Sexual violence and rape, Statutory rape or defilement

The appellant was convicted of defiling a 12-year-old girl and appealed the conviction on the grounds that the intercourse was consensual and that he believed the complainant was older than 12 years at the time. The Court dismissed the appeal and noted that the evidence was sufficient to prove a lack of consent but also that, at 12 years old, the complainant was too young to give consent. The Court also noted aggravating factors, including that the appellant had intercourse with the complainant on multiple occasions and the appellant had threatened the complainant against telling her parents.

Republic v. Makaluni High Court of Malawi (2002)

Sexual violence and rape

The accused was convicted of rape and sentenced to four years' imprisonment. The sentence was appealed by the judge who reviewed the lower court's decision because the reviewing judge found the sentence inadequate. The Court upheld the sentence, stating that it was not so excessively inadequate as to merit interference and taking note of the factors used in determining sentences for rape offenders: violence used to commit the rape, a repeated rape, a carefully planned rape, whether the defendant has previous convictions for rape or other serious offenses, whether the victim was subjected to any further sexual indignities, whether the victim was very young or very old, and the physical and mental effects upon the victim. The factors to warrant a harsher sentence were not judged to be present in this case, and the sentencing judge's decision was within his discretion.

Republic v. Mzungu High Court of Malawi (2007)

Sexual violence and rape, Statutory rape or defilement

The appellant was charged with defilement for having unlawful carnal knowledge of a girl under 13 years of age. The trial court convicted him of indecent assault because there was no penetration. He appealed his conviction for indecent assault because it was not included in the original charge. He also argued that his sentence was excessive. The Court dismissed the appeal of the conviction on the grounds that where the evidence is sufficient to sustain the lesser charge of indecent assault but may not be sufficient for defilement, the accused may be convicted of the lesser crime even when it was not included in the original charge. However, the Court upheld the appeal of the sentence and lowered it, despite of the fact that women and girls need to be protected, taking into account the mitigating factor of the appellant's youth.

Republic v. Peter High Court of Malawi (2008)

Statutory rape or defilement

The appellant was found guilty of defiling a girl under 13 years of age and appealed on the grounds that the sentence is excessive and that his taking care of his grandparents should be considered as a mitigating factor. The complainant had since been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection and medical examinations revealed multiple instances of sexual abuse. The appellant testified that neither he nor his wife had a sexually transmitted infection, but the Court did not find this claim persuasive because neither of them had been tested (neither took the initiative to be tested and the government could not force them to be tested). The Court dismissed the appeal and upheld the sentence, considering the harm done to the complainant in infecting her with a sexually transmitted infection.

Vaux v. Vaux High Court of Malawi (2007)

Divorce and dissolution of marriage, Domestic and intimate partner violence, Gender discrimination, International law, Property and inheritance rights

The petitioner-wife sought dissolution of her marriage on the grounds of abuse by the respondent-husband, who repeatedly physically abused her and threatened her with physical force when she tried to stop him from drinking. She also asked for maintenance for the couple's daughter. The Court granted the dissolution of marriage and noted that the types of mistreatment the petitioner suffered at the hands of her husband constituted gender-based violence as defined by the Declaration of the Elimination of Violence Against Women because it was based on the unequal power relations between the husband and wife and caused the petitioner serious psychological suffering.