Rural women lag in accessing justice

Culture has a role to play when accessing civil justice, mainly in rural areas, a recent report has found.

The Civil Justice Needs of a Malawian Woman Report by the Gender Justice Unit (GJU) found that with the matriarchal systems of culture in the country, women and children are exposed to property and land grabbing when a husband dies.

It says this leads to various forms of injustice for the widow and the children.

Representatives of organisations that champion women’s legal rights brainstorming
about legal empowerment

People from Chigwirizano, Chitipi and Lumbadzi in Lilongwe where the study was conducted, noted that government, civil society organisations and other stakeholders are not doing enough to protect the rights of women.

According to the report, civil cases involving women usually do not reach completion because the police and chiefs, demand money before resolving the cases.

“This brings unfairness and inequality because only those with financial muscle see justice served. Comparatively, women are usually at a disadvantage economically than men and as a result, women cannot afford to pay the police or chiefs and end up withdrawing or give up on pursuing the case,” reads the report in part.

Access to justice is one of the fundamental principles in the rule of law.

Without it, people’s voices are not heard and impedes the exercise of their rights.

GJU founder Sarai Chisala-Tempelhoff said the local organisation has set out to equip people with legal empowerment and create a bridge between law and the people.

“Legal empowerment creates a bridge between the legally disadvantaged communities and the law to access justice. It enables people to draw legal solutions on their own and use them. In a country where so few of us have access to either a legal practitioner or the finances for a lawyer, creating avenues like this is very important,” she said.

GJU has received funding from Osisa to do some activities on legal empowerment in the country.

These include research on the civil justice needs of rural and peri-urban women; develop the white paper on the use of mobile technology to improve justice for women in the country and forming a network of organisations that do legal empowerment.

Tempelhooff said among other things, the research found that many women in rural and peri-urban areas do not know about the formal court systems and mainly rely on traditional courts.

She further noted that even in the victim support units (VSUs) and traditional courts, people still have to pay money or there is distance involved.

“So for many people, justice is removed not just because they do not know about it, but also because they do not have the finances, time or access to it,” she observed.

Representative of the Women Judges Association of Malawi, Justice Zione Ntaba agrees with Tempelhoff that even though most people in rural areas know about laws in this country, many do not know how to use them for their benefit.

“They know they can get services from the district commissioner’s office, but do not know what steps are needed to access them. Many also realise they can get justice from the traditional courts, but do not know procedures,” she said Ntaba.

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