The self-immolation of the Manda family in an impoverished Blantyre slum has been grabbing headlines in Malawi for weeks. Many commentators here have been mulling over why the siblings made their fatal pact. But far more concerning to me is the way 19-year-old Maria Manda, the sole survivor of the blaze, was treated after being rescued. Attempted suicide is a misdemeanour offense in Malawi, punishable by two years imprisonment with hard labour. Once pulled from the fire, Manda was duly arrested and charged for her transgression. She pleaded guilty in court.
Coming from Canada, where we speak of suicide victims, the prosecution of Manda as a criminal seems to me an unusual punishment for a non-crime. Here in Malawi, however, suicide is uncritically accepted as against the law, a criminal offense rather than a social issue.
While I was surprised by Manda’s arrest, Davie Chingwalu, the press officer for the Malawi police in Blantyre, was equally surprised by my questioning of the criminalization of attempted suicide.
“Yes, it’s illegal,” said Chingwalu, his eyebrows arched in surprise. “How else do you deal with someone who deliberately takes a life?”
The police could not provide statistics on how many people are arrested for attempted suicide each year in Malawi. (The national police spokesperson, Willy Maluka, said that compiling such statistics is time-consuming as it is done by hand. I actually believe the police on this one—I have personally seen the hand-drawn graphs of the 2010 crime rates at Blantyre’s police headquarters.) But Chingwalu acknowledges that the police pursue such cases when they are brought to their attention.
While attempted suicide, which was decriminalized in Canada in 1972, remains illegal in many countries, most of these countries do not bother expending resources on prosecuting people who pose a danger to themselves, not others. There is a tacit acknowledgement of the failed logic in punishing someone whose despair warps life into a torture worse than death.
In Malawi, adherence to the letter of the law means that people like Maria Manda will face “justice” rather than sympathy—or help. This attitude towards suicide needs to be openly discussed and criticized, particularly when studies show that suicide has become a parallel epidemic to HIV/AIDS.
Though there is not data for Malawi specifically, studies carried out in South Africa link increased suicide rates in sub-Saharan Africa to the rise of HIV/AIDS. According to South Africa’s National Center for Health Statistics, the rate of fatal poisonings—ingesting agricultural pesticides—is by far the most common method of suicide in sub-Saharan Africa, increasing fivefold during the 1990s, when the HIV/AIDS epidemic was rapidly spreading. Extend such numbers to Malawi, a country similarly afflicted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and you’ll likely find a consequent rise in suicide, which makes the decriminalization of suicide an important issue for legislators. Chasing after “criminals” driven by disease, despair and desperate circumstances to take their own lives makes little less sense, particularly in one of the world’s six poorest countries. Money expended on prosecuting suicide criminals could instead go towards treating the underlying social ills that plague the country.
I cannot say what kind of problems Maria Manda faced that drove her and her siblings to seek absolution in death. But forcing her to stand trial for the attempt to take her life does not address these problems and, worse, can only exacerbate her despair. We should be questioning the logic of a system that punishes a young woman’s grief-driven angst.