It is an open secret that access to formal justice by the rural populace, especially women, has - for quite a long time - remained one of the key social challenges in Malawi.
This - as a result - has successfully derailed the fight for gender equality, among other socio-economic development initiatives in the country.
All this has been blamed on – among other issues - the lack of awareness of the formal justice delivery system, high illiteracy levels, cultural practices and long distances to courts in the rural areas.
Therefore in a bid to resolve this social challenge, the Paralegal Advisory Services Institute (PASI) - a local Non-Governmental Organization established to promote access to justice for vulnerable groups such as children and women - is implementing a project called “Chilungamo: Access to Justice through Village Mediation and Paralegal Services ”
The 4-year Project - which is being implemented with funding from the European Union (EU) and The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) - is using village mediation Programme s one of the strategies for promoting the access to justice to rural women, among other vulnerable groups.
The Village Mediation Services provide an alternative, informal, participatory and free of charge solutions for settling disputes that include domestic conflicts, minor land conflicts and other minor disputes; outside the formal legal system through use of volunteer mediators.
The process takes into consideration the women’s concerns as it ensures their full participation in exercising their constitutional right to equality.
41-year-old Stella Chibwe, from Traditional Authority Mtwalo area in the northern district of Mzimba, is one of the community mediators and a trainer for mediators, who dedicates her free time towards resolving issues in her community.
“My observation is that issues of polygamy and alcohol abuse by most men have been leading to domestic challenges in most families. Whenever there are marital problems, it is usually the women and kids who suffer most. My motivation is therefore to help my fellow women resolve some of the challenges they face,” says Stella.
Added Stella: “Since we started doing this, there has been a significant change in our community. Whenever domestic disputes arise, we work together to ensure that they are resolved amicably before they escalate to more serious conflicts like gender-based violence. We also ensure that women do not feel ashamed to call for our support whenever they are facing problems.”
These community mediators have been equipped with skills in human rights issues and the processes of mediation which is enabling them to resolve issues in a non-confrontational, mutually-beneficial, simple, clear, confidential and respectful manner with no fee required from those needing the services.
This has instilled a sense of trust, confidence and empowerment in the women who were previously unable to access the formal justice and used to suffer injustices in silence.
Among these women is Maria Banda, from Malindi in the southern lakeshore district of Mangochi.
“I had been facing problems in my marriage for 7 years until someone suggested I take the issues to the village mediators. I was a bit hesitant at first because I felt they were not matured enough to handle my marital problems that I thought were too sensitive. But I can testify today that the differences we had in our family are a thing of the past. We now have peace in our home, which would not have been so if I had not taken my marital issues to the Mediators,” observed Maria.
The success stories of this project leave Group Village Headman Liwonde from Traditional Authority Mlumbe in Zomba district with no other option, than heaping praises on the mediators for the job well done in his community.
Among others, the Village Head attributes this success to the good-working relation between the traditional leaders and the mediators in his community.
“When the programme was first introduced, we were a bit hesitant as chiefs to give them (Community Mediators) the support they needed. Our fear was that they would take away our crucial role of presiding over cases, as per our traditions. We also felt like they were taking away some of our benefits like the fines we impose on those found to be in the wrong,”
“However, we have now realised that they have made our lives as chiefs much easier because we now refer delicate cases to them. We can now concentrate on other developmental issues in our villages, than spending most of our time on presiding over conflicts,” said Group Village Head Liwonde.
The village mediators regularly hold awareness meetings in their communities on the nature of disputes they are not mandated to resolve, including criminal offenses and serious human rights violations.
The project is designed to resolve at the least 60, 288 cases by mediation in the targeted districts that have the full women participation at all levels, a development which is critical in the achievement of SDGs.