Only when a gay couple, Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, decided to come out in the open and get engaged in December 2009, did a blanket of silence lift from Malawi society around lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights. Malawi authorities arrested the two, causing an international outcry.
Since then, the late President Bingu wa Mutharika's government pardoned the couple but upheld Malawi's anti-gay law. His successor, Joyce Banda, now plans to repeal the law, which has created a sea of controversy and divided the country.
Homophobia is widespread in Malawi. The country's media has taken a central role in ensuring homophobic opinions remain front and centre. In a story, published on 25 May in The Nation, a Malawian daily – out of 14 commentators, 13 were opposed to Banda's decision. They all argued on the basis of biblical teachings, with one saying that, "Legalising same sex marriage is pricking into Jehovah's eyes." Another declared: "The president will lose support if she repeals the law on homosexuality. Does our president belong here, or to Britain or America?"
Banda has observed that since revealing her government's intention to repeal anti-gay laws, the public chorus of disapproval has been deafening.
At a Blantyre press briefing on 25 May, she seemed to attempt to placate opponents. "During my address to parliament I just mentioned the contentious bills that my government seeks to repeal," stated Banda. "But if you ask me my position I would say that as a president I do not make laws…Even if it were tabled for debate, I will not force MPs to pass it. If the people of Malawi do not want same sex marriages, MPs will not pass the law."
This seems purposely ambiguous.
Likewise, Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Ralph Kasambara, has not said anything to bring a smile to the faces of either pro or anti-gay citizens. Kasambara attempted to translate the president's statement, claiming Banda was only trying to encourage a healthy debate. "The bill would be debated by parliament from an informed position after the debate and it would be pointless for government to go ahead arresting suspected gays and lesbians when a law that criminalises same sex relationships is being considered for review," he said.
Malawi is not alone when it comes to the divisive issue of LGBT rights. Many African countries outlaw homosexuality and many churches preach against it. Uganda provides lengthy prison sentences and a controversial bill that calls for the death penalty for homosexual acts, such as gay sex where one partner is a minor or has HIV. Gambia, Cameroon, Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe are some of the countries that have laws that ban or repress homosexuality. South Africa is the only country that recognises gay rights and same-sex marriage.
The 2009 Human Rights Watch report, Together, Apart, notes of sub-Saharan Africa: "Virtually any move LGBT groups make, from renting an apartment to holding a press conference, can feed a violent moral panic where media, religious figures, and government collude." Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, recently explained that same-sex relationships violate the rights of women. Mugabe further said that same-sex relationships make the union between men and women and child bearing impossible. He added that same-sex marriages might lead to human ‘extinction’.
This is despite a January 2012 call by United Nations secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, on African nations to stop treating gays as second-class citizens, or even criminals. He urged African leaders to end discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Meanwhile, countries like Malawi continue to suffer brain drain because of anti-gay laws and views at the highest levels. Many gays and lesbians who can contribute to development have left Africa for countries where they are not only going to be tolerated, but accepted as human beings.
When all is said and done, it is clear that Banda is between a rock and a hard place.
On one hand she has a population that has been mostly behind her since she came to power, yet many are turning against her attempt to repeal the country's anti-gay legislation.
On the other she has donors who are ready to shut down the aid taps if she keeps the country's anti-gay law in place. United Kingdom Prime Minister, David Cameron, recently threatened to cut aid to countries that continue to criminalise homosexuality.
While Banda may have a personal view on the matter, she ought to weigh her options clearly, even if she has not been allowed much wiggle room.
Malawian Paramount Chief Chikulamayembe recently spoke on the issue, noting: "He who cuts ties with his moral values, tradition and culture does not only lose direction but everything he stands for."
Banda's government will soon have to decide just what they think the country's moral values and culture demand are.
- Gregory Gondwe is a journalist based in Malawi. This article is part of the Gender Links (GL) Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news. It is republished here with the permission of GL.