A DFID-backed initiative in Malawi is working to ensure that poor people aren't let down by the justice system. Looking into issues from land disputes to child protection, from witchcraft to domestic violence, Primary Justice Forums are bringing fairer, faster justice across the country. In some cases, the Forums have helped save people from terrible, and undeserved, fates.
From Schoolgirl to the Teacher's Wife: Georgina's Story
For a bright 16-year-old like Georgina, secondary school should have been the natural next step after passing the primary school leaving exams.
However, coming from a poor family (her father died when she was nine, and she was raised by her mother on less than 50 pence a day), marriage seemed like a better option than staying on in education. So, as soon as she left primary school, Georgina became the wife of her old math teacher - a sure passport to a better standard of living.
The Love Potion Backfires
But, before long, the marriage came under strain. Her husband was spending more and more time with his first wife, and Georgina felt neglected. In desperation, she tried to feed him a herbal love potion. This was a rash move, and, when her husband found out, he took legal action.
The subsequent court case went badly for Georgina. She felt the hearing was biased, and that she was not given an opportunity to argue her side. With the court finding against her, she was ordered to pay a substantial fine, which her family couldn't afford. Unable to raise the necessary money, Georgina was sentenced to jail.
Primary Justice to the Rescue
Just as things looked very bleak, a new initiative supported by DFID came to the rescue. The local Primary Justice Forum, introduced by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP), paid the fine, saving Georgina from prison. Mediating between Georgina's family and the family of her husband, the Forum also helped the two parties to reach an out of court settlement. Next, the CCJP started discussions with the Ministry of Education to get Georgina back into school.
Georgina’s case is typical of how Primary Justice Forums across Malawi are helping more poor people to get a fair hearing. The membership of each Forum is decided by the needs of each local community - often, they will include marriage counselors, senior villagers, magistrates, and a CCJP representative. By encouraging formal and informal justice providers to come together, the Forums attempt to resolve cases in a more rounded way.
Communities Feel the Benefits
DFID has funded a range of other CCJP initiatives to improve the delivery of justice. These include convening meetings between justice providers at the district and village levels to discuss local issues and how to cooperate more closely, and providing training in conflict management, human rights, and the referral of difficult cases.
Throughout Malawi, communities are feeling the benefits of the new initiatives. People now have a wider range of options when trying to settle disputes, and training has enhanced the skills of those providing justice. Confidence in the Primary Justice Forums has also seen a drop in the number of cases begun at (or appealed to) the formal level - with land cases a notable example.
By making these improvements, the program has helped poor Malawians to feel more secure. There is a greater sense that, should they encounter legal difficulties, their cases will be dealt with fairly. This creates the right environment in which people can get on with life - and the right environment for making a decent living.
Notes to editors :
DFID provided $248,000 funding to the CCJP over nine months (September 2006- March 2007) through the Safety Security and Access to Justice (SSAJ) Primary Justice Program.
There are 202 Primary Justice Forums across 28 districts of Malawi. Within this period, the Forums resolved around 3,500 out of the 5,000 cases brought before them. Most of these cases had to do with land, property grabbing, child maintenance, domestic violence, witchcraft, and deceased estate. The SSAJ has reached about 840,000 people through its awareness-raising exercises on justice delivery services.
1GBP = 1.99 USD as of July 28, 2020