The Mamie Martin Fund has been honoured to have Vera Chirwa as our Malawian Patron for many years. This Black History Month, we share her remarkable story.
Born in Nyasaland in the 1930s she was encouraged to go to school by her grandmother and was the only girl out of 72 pupils at Livingstonia primary school. At secondary school in Blantyre she was the only girl alongside 24 boys. She trained as a teacher before marrying Orton Chirwa in 1951. Together they campaigned for the independence of Malawi (then Nyasaland) and by the time this was achieved in 1964 both Vera and Orton had trained as lawyers. Vera was Malawi’s first female lawyer.
During the difficult years leading up to independence Vera and Orton were both arrested and imprisoned by the white British authorities on fabricated charges for their political activities with the Nyasaland African Congress. They were eventually released without charge but the experience led Vera with others to found The League of Malawi Women which taught women about their rights, as well as campaigning politically.
Dr Hastings Banda became Malawi’s first president but things started to go wrong when his Cabinet split as he became increasingly dictatorial, eventually declaring Malawi a one party state and making himself President for life. Orton, who was Minister of Justice in the cabinet, did not agree with this and eventually he and Vera and their young family had to flee their beloved Malawi as their lives were in danger.
On Christmas Eve in 1981 on their way to a meeting with other exiled Malawians in Zambia they were kidnapped by armed men and taken across the border into Malawi. There they were detained and imprisoned and eventually sentenced to death on 6th May 1983. Due to pressure from Amnesty International and many friends and supporters around the world they escaped execution but languished in prison for 12 years. Vera was released on 24th January 1993 but tragically her husband Orton died in prison under suspicious circumstances just prior to this.
Despite this blow, Vera continued to work and fight for human rights and the empowerment of women. The Mamie Martin Fund (founded in 1993, the year Vera was released from prison) supports poor girls in North Malawi to attend secondary school and hopefully empowers them to become strong women in their communities and in Malawi.
Vera is now 88years old and in poor health but her story continues to inspire young women around the world. Fearless Fighter is the title of her autobiography.