Women May 10, 2019 at 12:00 pm

Meet Malawi’s first female lawyer who fought for a multi-party system and spent 12 years on death row

Elizabeth Ofosuah Johnson | Staff Writer

Elizabeth Ofosuah Johnson May 10, 2019 at 12:00 pm

May 10, 2019 at 12:00 pm | Women

Vera Chirwa made history in 1966 as the first female to become a lawyer in Malawi when she was called to the Bar in London after years of studying and raising a family. Although her name is not widely known across the globe and in Africa, within the region of East Africa, she is celebrated as the woman who stood up for the right of women and the political development of Malawi.

Born in 1932 when Malawi was still known as Nyasaland, Vera was the first child and daughter of a medical officer who believed that despite her gender, she was entitled to a good education. She spent the early parts of her childhood living with her paternal grandparents and became very close to her grandfather, who was one of the first black Reverands in Malawi.

In 1951 at 19, shortly after finishing school, she married Orton Chirwa, a celebrated lawyer and politician who was by then a teacher. After three kids, her husband left for the UK to study law and returned in 1958 becoming the leader of Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and then Minister of Justice and Attorney-General after the MCP’s victory in the 1961 elections.

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Vera started the Nyasaland African Women League to support the MCP’s fight for an independent country while working as a clerk. However, the couple had to leave the country to escape the wrath of the president after a few misunderstandings in 1964.

The couple settled in Tanzania during which time Vera went to study Law and became Malawi’s first female lawyer. After her call to the bar in the UK, she moved back to Tanzania to work as a prosecuting state attorney.

While in Tanzania, Vera secretly communicated with the MCP and the
Nyasaland African Women League to help fight against the ruling government and for a multi-party system but unfortunately, her dealings with the two bodies were leaked. On December 24, 1981, the couple and their son were abducted by Malawaian security in Zambia. The two were taken to Malawi and charged with high treason with a death sentence that followed in 1983 when they were pronounced guilty.

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Vera and her husband before he died

Vera would spend the next 12 years of her life awaiting her death. She was separated from her husband who she only saw again in 1992 three weeks before he died at age 73.

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On January 24, 1993, at age 61, Vera received a pardon from president Banda and upon her release, she immediately started work on leading campaigns for police reforms and the end of the death penalty in Malawi.

She was appointed by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights as a Special Reporter on prison condition in Africa and
founded the Malawi Centre for Advice, Research and Education on Rights (Malawi CARER).

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She also started work on her autobiography – Fearless Fighter – which was released in 2007. She has also received several awards from human rights organisations and school in and outside of Malawi.

After her release from prison, she is quoted as saying: I am still available, watching with keen interest. If the current government fails, I will certainly stand as a presidential candidate in the next elections.”

She continues to be an example of bravery and ambition to women and paved the way for women in law and politics.


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