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Closing the justice gap - critiquing legal-empowerment approaches to address police abuse in Malawi

The use of arbitrary arrests targeting vulnerable and poor communities constitutes a violation of human rights. In Malawi, arbitrary arrests have often been used by the police to target the so-called “undesirable elements of society”, including sex workers, vendors, children who live and work on the streets, persons who beg, and persons with disabilities. These individuals are frequently arrested and charged with common nuisance, being idle and disorderly, soliciting for an immoral purpose, being a rogue and vagabond, loitering, and breach of peace. This project will undertake empirical research to address the issue of arbitrary arrest of the poor and marginalized, including analysis of root causes and differing experiences between genders, income levels, and ethnic backgrounds. It will focus on utilizing evidence-based analysis to overcome power imbalances between the police and communities.

The project will examine the potential of utilizing legal-empowerment approaches to translate grassroots efforts aimed at addressing police abuse in Malawi into improvements in broader law, policies, and institutional practices. It will further examine the possibility of scaling up legal-empowerment approaches, combined with legal organizing and other collective actions, to address impunity for police abuse. The project will critically reflect on and engage with local communities to assess the efficacy of legal-empowerment approaches with the objectives of enhancing such approaches and working towards closing the justice gap.

A capacity-building component will bring together researchers, research participants, and leaders in legal-empowerment civil society organizations, as well as representatives from state institutions with a mandate to promote access to justice. Additionally, paralegals from the community-based organizations will be trained in undertaking participatory action research on innovative strategies for promoting rights-based policing. The emphasis is on using legal-empowerment approaches to foster democratic, inclusive, and rights-based approaches in policing as a long-term strategy of strengthening the rule of law. Ultimately, the project will also include advocacy efforts designed to facilitate transformation and strengthen bottom-up actions by marginalized groups in society.

Project ID
Project Status
36 months
IDRC Officer
Martha Mutisi
Total Funding
CA$ 449,300.00
Institution Country
South Africa
The Southern African Human Rights Litigation Centre Trust

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