Skip to main content

Victims trafficked for sexual exploitation are being failed by Malawi’s criminal justice system

BLANTYRE, MALAWI, June 16, 2022 – Victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation (sex trafficking) in Malawi are being failed by the country’s criminal justice system. Few cases make it to court, and the ones that do are plagued by multiple delays, with perpetrators rarely punished. Malawian NGO People Serving Girls at Risk (PSGR) and international women’s rights organization Equality Now have submitted a joint complaint to the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) highlighting how poor implementation of anti-trafficking legislation by the Government of Malawi is leaving girls unprotected against sex trafficking.

The complaint centers on Maggie*, who was 16-years-old when she was lured from her rural village with a false promise of legitimate work and trafficked into prostitution inside Malawi. 

With support from PSGR and Equality Now, Maggie’s legal case has been ongoing for over four years. It has been beset by a series of inordinate delays and mishandling by state actors, including police, prosecutors, magistrates, and others in the criminal justice chain.

The lack of progression in her case – which is still languishing in the pre-trial stage – demonstrates systemic failings experienced by victims of sex trafficking in Malawi.

The complaint submitted to ACERWC on Day of the African Child on June 16, 2022, outlines ways in which the Malawian government has violated articles of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. The communication seeks to hold the government to account for failing to progress with the prosecution of Maggie’s case, therefore denying her access to justice.

Malawi is a regional hub for sex trafficking

Malawi is a source, transit, and destination country for sex trafficking. Widespread poverty coupled with deeply entrenched gender discrimination renders girls extremely vulnerable. The cost of basic commodities such as food and fuel has risen due to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, the impacts of climate change, and the global repercussions of Russia’s war on Ukraine.

This worsening financial hardship is compounding women’s and girls’ vulnerability to abuse, victimization, and coercion. This is reflected in the sharp increase in sex trafficking cases being reported to PSGR on a daily basis during the past two years.   

Traffickers use fraudulent offers of education and employment to snare targets. Adolescent girls from poor rural communities are particularly at risk, and it is common for victims to be taken to urban areas where they are kept in squalid conditions, forced to work at local bars and rest houses, and coerced into sex with customers.

As well as being trafficked internally within Malawi, women and girls are transported across national borders to neighboring countries Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia, and further afield to destinations such as South Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Such criminal activity generates high profits and comes with a low risk of prosecution.

Survivors must overcome immense hurdles to receive legal justice. This includes escaping abusive situations, victim-blaming, and stigma, securing safe shelter, and accessing medical and psychosocial care that is key to recovery from physical, sexual, and psychological harms.

Trafficking legislation in Malawi is being weakly enforced

Malawi has stringent legislation against sex trafficking, but enforcement of the law is weak. State actors are often slow to respond, do not prioritize cases, and investigations are inadequate. A lack of standardized systems and minimal funding means cases are not effectively identified nor acted upon, and victim protection systems are substandard.

There is a pressing need for cases to be prosecuted and concluded within a reasonable time, but the few that do make it to court are hampered by frequent delays in adjudication, including numerous adjournments and canceled court hearings. This can be extremely stressful and traumatizing for survivors, making it harder for them to rebuild their lives while legal proceedings are pending. 

Underpinning this is a lack of awareness among government actors and the public about the prevalence and manifestations of sex trafficking and the various legal provisions that can be applied.  

A culture of impunity is being fostered as perpetrators are not being held to account. All this puts women and girls at further risk and causes additional harm to survivors who are not receiving the justice and support they need and are entitled to under Malawian law and international human rights commitments the country has signed up to.

Malawi’s Trafficking in Persons Act, 2015 makes provisions for the prevention and elimination of trafficking in persons. It has also ratified regional and international human rights instruments which obligate the state to put in place necessary measures to protect women and girls from all forms of violence and exploitation including sexual exploitation and sex trafficking.

However, Malawi is not effectively enforcing anti-trafficking laws. Tsitsi Matekaire, the Global Lead for Equality Now’s End Sexual Exploitation program, says: 

“Malawi has enacted its 2015 Trafficking in Persons Act but the government must do more to ensure that laws are effectively implemented. This requires putting in place policies and procedures to protect girls and women and providing swift access to justice for all who have been trafficked for sexual exploitation.”

“The criminal justice system needs to respond better to the realities and requirements of trafficking survivors, including safeguarding them against further exploitation and making support services readily available. In particular, the state should address the specific vulnerabilities of adolescent girls that put them at heightened risk of sex trafficking and other forms of exploitation and abuse.”

PSGR’s Executive Director Caleb Ng’ombo explains that in addition to enacting the law, the Government of Malawi must raise awareness about sex trafficking:

“It is important for the Malawian government to increase funding and to facilitate awareness within communities, law enforcement, and the judiciary about sex trafficking. This will enhance the ability of stakeholders to adopt suitable prevention and response measures. A key intervention is sensitivity training for judges, prosecutors, and police so they are better able to effectively identify, investigate, and prosecute crimes relating to sex trafficking.”

“Sexual exploitation and trafficking have blighted the lives of thousands of women and girls across Malawi. Today’s landmark filing is an important step towards holding the Malawian state accountable for upholding the rights of women and girls.”

* Maggie is a pseudonym to protect her identity

– END –  

Notes to editors:

For media inquiries please contact:

About Equality Now: 

Equality Now is an international non-governmental human rights organization that works to protect and promote the rights of women and girls around the world by combining grassroots activism with international, regional, and national legal advocacy. Our international network of lawyers, activists, and supporters achieve legal and systemic change by holding governments responsible for enacting and enforcing laws and policies that end legal inequality, sex trafficking, online sexual exploitation, sexual violence, and harmful practices such as female genital mutilation and child marriage. 

About People Serving Girls at Risk (PSGR):

People Serving Girls At Risk (PSGR) is a frontline organization working toward ending human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, prostitution, and child marriages. PSGR undertakes public civic education, advocates for effective laws and policies to protect girls and women, and provides a range of direct support services to victims and survivors.

Malawi’s laws on sex trafficking:

Malawi ranks 174 out of 189 countries on the United Nations’ Human Development Index. Half of the population lives below the national poverty line, and a quarter lives in extreme poverty. This leaves women and girls extremely vulnerable to sexual exploitation, trafficking, and other forms of rights violations.

Malawi has stringent laws around trafficking and exploitation, including the Trafficking in Persons Act, 2015 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 crimes involving a child victim.

Malawi is a signatory to many international and regional human rights treaties including the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); the Protocol to the African Charter Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol); the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child; and the 2000 United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children.

Each of these obliges Malawi to protect the human rights of women and girls, and ensure their dignity, equality, and freedom from violence and trafficking for sexual exploitation. 

Despite numerous indications about the extent of sex trafficking in Malawi, according to the US 2020 Trafficking in Persons report, the Malawi Police Services reported the arrest of just 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.

Failure to efficiently deliver justice to victims of sex trafficking is in contravention of these regional and international human rights commitments as well as Malawi’s Child Care, Protection and Justice Act, 2010, and Trafficking in Persons Act, 2015.

The African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC):

The African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) was established in 2001, drawing its mandate from Articles 32-46 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. The main goal of the Secretariat is to work towards making Africa a continent that is fit for children by protecting and respecting their rights. The committee’s main functions are to collect information, interpret provisions of the Charter, monitor the implementation of the Charter, give recommendations to governments for working with child rights organizations, consider individual complaints about violations of children’s rights, and investigate measures adopted by Member States to implement the Charter.