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Malawi: The Malawi Village Mediation Programme: Promoting Social Cohesion and Protecting Rights

By: Dr. Maria Paula Meneses

This paper explains the background, objectives, legal framework, structure and funding of the Malawi Village Mediation Prgramme (VMP) .  It then examines its results, evaluating successes, areas for improvement and applicability.

In many African contexts, including Malawi, non-state local justice is more trusted and legitimate, being the repository of the community’s beliefs, norms, and values, and because it provides practical and accessible justice. As such, local justice plays a critical role in society, particularly in these rural areas, and has been indispensable to the communities for immediate delivery of what has been, for them, the only option when it comes to settle conflicts.  Despite the Constitutional promise of access to justice, approximately 85% of Malawi’s population lives in rural areas, out of reach of formal courts. Thus, in order to fulfill Malawians’ right to access justice, one has to bring justice into the villages, engaging with different sources of law and mediation. In a situation where most people want to settle their disputes quickly and cheaply through a local forum that they understand and can access, the Malawian NGO Paralegal Advisory Services Institute (PASI) has sought to improve access to justice for the Malawians.

As in many other countries, the legal system of Malawi is formal, complex, mainly present in urban centers, time consuming, and expensive. Therefore, poor people, particularly the illiterate and the disadvantaged living in rural areas, cannot enforce their own rights and suffer injustice in silence. The VMP introduces a village-based mediation scheme that can assist poor and vulnerable people to access justice in civil and some minor criminal cases. Inspired by similar projects around the world, the Malawi VMP was developed with PASI. It promises citizens justice in their own language, in their own village, and on their own terms. It empowers them to resolve minor criminal and civil issues, free of charge and in a participatory and culturally appropriate manner, in a process which is founded on strict human rights principles. The Programme is implemented by village mediators who live within the communities they are assisting: it is a mediation service to the community by the community.