Lilongwe, Malawi — In a grainy mobile phone video that went viral last year, three women are seen stripping another woman naked, pulling her hair, dragging her to the ground and smashing a flower pot over her head.
The video of the assault, filmed by one of the women, spread among closed WhatsApp groups before circulating on Facebook in Malawi. It gripped the country, sparking a national conversation about gender-based violence.
A few days later, an image of the same three women surfaced online. They were pictured topless, sitting on the cement floor of a police station.
While social networks have helped to advance women’s rights in Malawi, they’ve also become an amplifier for an existing culture of abuse.
These are three stories of how women in Malawi have been sexually harassed in public, humiliated online, and subjected to a cycle of shame. Each involves a photograph taken without the women’s consent; in two, the women are naked or partially clothed. To highlight the issue at the heart of the story, CNN has chosen to republish the photographs. In order to not further fuel the cycle of shame that the women described, we have removed them from the images.
They attacked a woman, before being stripped themselves
Patriarchal values only add to the problem. The same survey found that 20.7% of women aged 15-19 agree a husband is justified in hitting his wife for reasons such as refusing to have sex or burning his food.
Flora Chinguwo, 26, believed her husband was cheating with the woman she attacked. Now Chinguwo is in jail alongside Nora Chatsika, 30, and Gertrude Banda, 28, who helped her carry out the assault. As both victims and perpetrators, the women reveal how deeply embedded attitudes toward gender-based violence are in Malawi.
“We’re going through a lot,” Chinguwo told CNN, “our families and children are on the outside, and we miss them.”
The women say they were rejected by a number of lawyers, who deemed the case too controversial, before Ishmail Wadi, a prominent local lawyer based in the capital Lilongwe, decided to represent them.
When Wadi first met the women, they told him they were assaulted and abused by officers in Kawale police station. They claim they were stripped naked and photographed, abused until 3 a.m. when a senior officer intervened.
“One of the women was in tears, crying, when she explained to me that they had been taking pictures of them,” Wadi explained. “Other male detainees were present and invited to watch. They were stripped off and made to sleep in a toilet, and were only given their clothes back when a senior officer came on scene.”
Wadi says the women provided evidence about who assaulted them in a disciplinary hearing.
Malawi’s National Police Spokesperson James Kadadzera confirmed the police were conducting an internal investigation into the incident to identify who from law enforcement was involved.
Although social media helped document the mistreatment the women endured, their viral video of the crime also heavily influenced the public’s view, Wadi says.
Many members of the public attended their hearing after seeing the video on social media, jeering and shouting abuse at the women in the court, even trying to attack them, said Wadi. He decided to remove the women from the courtroom, bringing them back in the afternoon when the crowd had dispersed.
“The reaction from the public was horrific,” Wadi said. “We did not have a fair trial because of social media.”
“The public response has been especially hostile because we’re women and we attacked a woman,” Chinguwo said. “Emotion played a big role in how people saw us.”
In early December, the women pleaded guilty to charges of “grievous bodily harm” and “insulting the modesty of women,” for their attack on the woman. They were sentenced to four years in prison. They intend to appeal their sentence.
The woman ‘paraded’ naked in the street
On the afternoon of March 17, 2017, social media in Malawi was in uproar about a young woman photographed naked in a market.
One image showed a female police officer walking the woman away from the market, as a group of men photographed her.
Some people on Facebook commented that she was being “paraded” in the streets of Limbe in the south of the country.
But other accounts also swirled online. Some said she had taken off her own clothes, encouraged by male street vendors who offered her a fee. Others suggested that vendors stripped her after she was caught stealing.
Martha Chizuma Mwangonde, Malawi’s ombudsman, represented the woman, a 20-year-old with mental-health issues from the remote area of Zomba, north of Limbe. The office of ombudsman is appointed to investigate public institutions in Malawi.
“My main objective was to ensure that the victim’s rights were well protected,” Mwangonde said.
The ombudsman showed CNN her report into the incident, for which she met with the victim at the police station in Limbe, and at a mental hospital in Zomba, the former capital, to assess her well-being. The woman has lived with bipolar disorder and other mental-health issues since 2010, her doctor told Mwangonde.
Referring to the way the woman was allegedly paraded, police told the ombudsman that there was nothing to cover the woman with at the time. Still, activists and human-rights lawyers in Malawi slammed the police for their handling of the case.
Malawi’s National Police Spokesperson James Kadadzera said that although the woman was removed from the scene, she was not charged with any crime. He said she was brought to a “safer place” and was later clothed.
Police conducted an investigation into the incident, and later, following public outcry, took 17 vendors believed to have undressed her in for questioning. Only four men were held. One of those men was charged with “insulting the modesty of a woman,” while the remaining three were charged with indecent assault.
“The police missed an opportunity to arrest the suspects right at the time of the incident,” Mwangonde said, adding that they only took action after a public outcry.
WhatsApp declined to comment about any of the cases in this article.
Habiba Osman, a human rights lawyer in Lilongwe who works extensively on issues concerning women’s rights, says that sexual harassment of women in Malawi — by their peers, the public and police — is ingrained in the country’s culture, and has been inflamed in recent years online.
“Social media has unleashed a new wave of violence here against women,” Osman says. “It has allowed these types of new crimes to harm women more than ever before, and has shown us how vulnerable women can be on social media. We haven’t educated people properly on the real consequences of social media yet.”
Cases where women’s private photos are shared without their consent are becoming increasingly common, according to Osman.
“Sexualized harassment is one of the highest forms of degradation against women here,” Osman says. “The patriarchal nature of our society means that women [are] not in control of their own body. How do you punish a woman? By exposing them.”
She adds that the internet is a double-edged sword for women in Malawi — it can harm them by amplifying harassment, but can also be used as a tool for their rights.
“Social media has done a great thing for us, especially activists, as it’s where we build and get our support, and build up our own networks. It’s easy for us to pick up our phones and expose the injustices we face, and amplify what we need to say.”
The woman has since been released from hospital. Chizuma continues to monitor her situation.
She held a sign at a rally, then she was arrested
Last September, hundreds of women wearing black gathered in Lilongwe to protest against gender-based violence.
Beatrice Mateyo, a human-rights defender and gender activist, was among the crowd. During the rally she held a sign that read: “Having a vagina is not a sin. My pussy, my pride.”
As she marched through the streets, her photograph was snapped and shared online. By the end of the protest, it had gone viral mostly through closed WhatsApp groups.
“People were angry with me, they said the sign was too graphic. But as an activist, you want to get a strong message across.”
During the global Women’s March last January, Mateyo recalled seeing women in the US Capitol, Washington, D.C., holding signs with similar messages. She didn’t consider that hers would prompt such a huge outcry.
Before the protest even wrapped up, police had identified her from social media, and arrested her.
“It was all fast moving. They didn’t have a charge at first, and they kept me detained for hours. They were flipping through their books, trying to find something they could charge me with.”
Three hours later, she was charged with “insulting the decency of women.” The charge — which is commonly used in Malawi — targets anyone who “utters any word, makes any sound or gesture or exhibits any object” intending to “intrude upon the privacy” of women.
Mateyo was detained for three hours, charged, and then released on bail, but authorities have not pursued the case further.
She has since sued the police and the Attorney General for her arrest, arguing that her human rights were violated. Mateyo contends that the offense she was charged under is being used too broadly by authorities.
The Attorney General did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
It was a “wake-up call” for women’s freedom in Malawi, Mateyo told CNN.
Much like Chinguwo, Chatsika, and Banda’s case, the public anger against Mateyo intensified on social media.
“No one came to the station to support me, or wrote me messages of support on social media. They said I had gone too far with the sign.”
“No one said they were insulting the decency of a man,” Mateyo said, half laughing.
Still, change for women is happening — and it’s being led by women like Mateyo, Osman, and others, advocating for the enforcement of the Gender Equality Act in courtrooms and with police prosecutions, and educating young women in schools about their rights.
Mateyo is hopeful for the future. “I will personally continue fighting for women’s rights, and so will other women here,” she says. “When things go wrong for us, I’ll continue to speak out and take necessary actions.”
“And one day soon,” she added, “we should be able to protest with a ‘pussy sign’ without fear of being arrested.”