The MPS and deserving victims: Violations of dignity and privacy when reporting an incident of violence to the Police
The Malawi Police Service (MPS) response to reports of violence, especially gender based violence (GBV), are crucial to
winning the fight against GBV. The MPS are at the very frontlines of the efforts to eradicate GBV and play a gate keeping role in the progression of cases through the legal system. To date there has been very little research into the MPS decision-making process and the reasons that they choose to proceed (to investigate and prosecute) with some complaints, as opposed to others. This fairly discretionary power that the police wield requires strict oversight: it matters who gets arrested, and who doesn’t; whose complaint is taken seriously, and who is turned aside; when the police decide to investigate and why. These decisions impact upon the broader shared understandings of violence and of victimhood. The trends the Police establish in their investigations and prosecution signify which set of criminal acts are likely to result in prosecution and punishment, and which aren’t. The other side of that trend relates to the victims, and so the police response determines who is and who isn’t an acceptable victim.
The MPS do not act in a vacuum: there is a specific social context within which they work. The political climate, the media attention and the public opinion are all relevant forces that are implicated in their decision-making. When the president declares that the fight against the scourge of HIV and AIDS should focus on prostitutes as “vectors” then the police are mobilised and dormant laws on loitering are dusted off and used to meet the political agenda. This is just one example but there are many. The MPS is proactive but it is largely reactive – they are a public institution and act upon the public mores. So there is a symbiosis in the creation of dominant discourse on criminal behaviour and victimhood: the police create versions that flow from their discretionary enforcement of criminal provisions; and the public (through the media, elected officials or even demonstrations) create versions that determine which activities are more criminal than others at a given point in time. These narratives also contribute to profiling of victims as “innocent” or “undeserving of violence” as opposed to “loose/slutty/whores/prostitutes” and therefore somehow responsible for their victimisation. The end result is a very disturbing situation where only some women can reliably claim the title of “victim” and so violence against all “others” is legitimated.
Discourses like these enable the normalisation of violence, particularly violence against those who have the least social capital and power to protect themselves. Perhaps it is just that with gender equality, as with all other forms of equality, some are more equal than others?
Recently a video went viral of an alleged complainant reporting an alleged assault to the police. If indeed the video is authentic then it seems to have been captured by an officer or someone who attended the reporting. You can hear the woman being questioned and the interviewers barely containing their mirth at her responses. She was asked about being on the streets at 4am, about the whereabouts of her attacker and other questions that dwelt upon issues apparently unrelated to whatever it was she wanted to report. In the clip you can clearly see her face but not the faces of her interviewers. She is reduced to an object of ridicule, and unwittingly became the star of a wide-reaching comedy when the person filming hit send. It actually doesn’t matter if the video is real or phony, what matters is that it is being passed on and passed off as representative of truth. As such it takes on a powerful place in Malawian imagination. On the one hand it is a salacious visual portrayal of a hot topic. It represents visual “evidence” that a scandal occurred and provides people with extra fodder to feed the gossip machine. It seems harmless enough, after all it is as if to say “look it isn’t just a story it actually happened, see here this is the hule (whore) reporting to the police”. Yet that is not the only message that the video spreads. On the other hand, the video sends a very particular message to all female victims and potential victims of violence. It says “this is what happens when you dare to approach the police about an incident.” You will be profiled to see if you meet the acceptable standards of victimhood, your story will be doubted and perhaps ridiculed, you may even end up filmed and have the clip sent all over social media. Everyone will be able to partake in your shame and you will be a victim once more. In a nutshell, it is a visual barrier to reporting.
Even more dangerously the video sends a clear message about the lack of confidentiality that a complainant risks experiencing when they approach the MPS. In many instances of violence, especially GBV, the fear of retaliation looms large as a barrier to reporting. The possibility that your community, family and friends could turn against you for speaking out ensures that those experiencing violence continue to suffer in silence. There is also the very real fear that your assailant could learn of an attempt to involve the police and would retaliate with (surprise, surprise) violence. The need for confidential reporting mechanisms is not just about protecting the privacy rights of complainants, when it comes to GBV it is about protecting their lives.
In this instance, the porosity of MPS and our collective response to a scandal resulted in the distribution and redistribution of this video clip and/or images. However, both the MPS as an institution and we as individuals are complicit in reinforcing a dominant discourse that sometimes violence is natural, normal, to be expected, and/or understandable.