First Woman Lawyer (Malawi)
By Anyah Gilmore-Jones
In 1932, Vera Mlangazua Chirwa was born into the family of Theodore Kadeng'ende Chirwa Elizabeth Chiwambo. Following the customs of the Ngoni people, her status as the first child led her paternal grandparents to raise her. Yet, she was the daughter and first child of a medical officer. Chirwa’s paternal and maternal grandfathers were both reverends. Even though both held the same occupation, Chirwa became especially close to her paternal grandfather. He began the legacy of leadership in the family by becoming the first African ordained as a reverend in Nyasaland. Though just a child, Chirwa was very cognizant of the injustices and discrimination within her community and she experienced this as a girl. Chirwa’s parents stressed the importance of African women pursuing an education, which was the foundation of her career in activism.
In a time where “self-governing British colonies, forced their European intrusion and control, upon the people of Malawi, Chirwa found her truth, or ‘Mlangazua’, as her name states. Through her tireless efforts in fighting for the rights of her people while being a leader, lawyer, and human and civil rights activist, her actions confirm that she has been a pioneer in society for numerous reasons. However, her voyage to becoming literate was not easy by any means. She navigated and persevered through the HIV/AIDS epidemic, economic constraints within the country, poverty, child labor, and the expectation of her duty to fulfill her role in the household. After years of struggling for her education, Chirwa graduated at age 19 with education from schools in Livingstonia and Blantyre. Thirteen years later, in 1951, she met and married her husband, Orton Chirwa who was Malawi’s Minister of Justice, a leader in the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), renowned lawyer, politician, and teacher. Together, they had three kids, though soon after Orton left Malawi to pursue his passion for law in England.
During her husband’s absence, Chirwa found a job as a clerk to sustain her family. She then managed two roles on her own, mother and a clerk. Upon returning, Orton decided to open his law firm, the first in the country, which then made it possible for Chirwa to pursue her aspirations of becoming the first female lawyer in Malawi. When Orton returned, she journeyed to London to study for the Bar and become the first female lawyer in Malawi in 1966. Her first case was the prosecution of a Tanzanian state attorney.
Chirwa began creating her own more permanent efforts of activism to combat “democratic challenges, high levels of poverty, corruption, insecurity, and food shortages” by either creating an
organization or joining one.
Her first act of service began in 1951 when she started the Nyasaland African Women League joining forces with women such as Rose Chibambo. The focus of the organization was to support the MCP’s fight for an independent country and “gain separation from the unpopular Federation of Rhodesia & Nyasaland.” Chirwa is also a founding member of the MCP, a party that represents the "Nyasaland African Congress' that was previously banned in 1959 and was critical to ensuring Malawi's independence in 1964. Later reflecting upon her barriers while pursuing her education, Chirwa founded the Malawi Centre for Advice, Research, and Education on Rights (Malawi CARER). This center helps tackle the challenges faced while the Malawi government tries to implement the policy of "Free Primary Education" for all of its citizens. Additionally, Chirwa also dedicates her time to working for “Women’s Voice”, a gender rights organization that supports and provides shelter homes for victimized women and children.
In 2004, Chirwa declared her candidacy for a coalition party, focusing on "continuing the fight for political rights" on a larger scale. Yet she has faced a backlash by the opposition stating she isn't an "established politician" or deeming her "too independent.” In 2006, the Vera Chirwa Award was created by the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria, South Africa. This award recognizes the alum of Master of Laws programs in Human Rights and Democratization at the University of Pretoria “who best epitomizes the true African human rights lawyer" and has "made an outstanding contribution to the protection and promotion of human rights in Africa.” In 2007, Chirwa published “Fearless Fighter” which details her journey through “betrayal, imprisonment, torture, and exile;” yet it inspires “hope and extraordinary bravery.”
Dauntlessly, Chirwa chose to defend her community without hesitation. However, her most notable sacrifice occurred when she put her life on the line and was sentenced to twelve years in prison for treason, facing death row. After Chirwa and her husband demanded a democratic form of government, Kumuzu Banda, the previous leader of the country, and the Malawi Congress Party declared the couple were enemies of Malawi.28 Consequently, they were forced to leave Malawi, and the couple traveled to various countries including Zambia, Great Britain, and the United States. Whilst in exile, they faced rising charges of conspiracy against the government. On December 25th, 1981, they were captured in East Zambia by Malawi’s security, forced to stand trial in traditional court, and faced criminal charges of treason.
While being tried for two months in traditional courts, they were not allowed defense attorneys, had their guilty verdict overruled by chiefs in the community, and were denied their right to be tried in Malawi's high courts. Behind bars, Chirwa’s faith did not waiver. She endured disgusting food and faced torture, brutality, denial of visitors, and contact with her husband. Her faith prevailed when she was set for immediate release as sanctioned by Amnesty International in 1990. She was then allowed to see her husband again and “pardoned for humanitarian efforts” by Banda on January 24th, 1993. Her dream of a democratic form of government finally came true when Banda’s presidential term ended shortly after.
Following her release from prison, Chirwa was appointed by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights as a Special Reporter on Prison Conditions in Africa. She is still an advocate for human rights and the welfare of the people. She has advocated for an end to the death penalty in Malawi. Chirwa was faced with the decision to sacrifice her interests for the interest of the greater good. She courageously made it through the unjust killing of Malawi citizens at the hands of British colonialism, Dr. Kamuza Banda’s authoritarian regime, and the seemingly everlasting fight for the installation of a democratic form of government.
Through all the physical, socio-political, and socio-economic challenges Chirwa has faced, one could say she is a true survivor. Chirwa is more than a pioneer in law, but an impetus to lead women’s rights, human rights, and political development in Malawi. Chirwa has set the standard for and created a legacy both in her own family and the country as a whole. One in which her daughter, Nyamazao Marjorie Mshana, has followed. Even at age 84, Chirwa still lives in her truth and won’t stop her service until she sees equality in her country by continuing the fight for her people.