1 April 2014

Malawi: Seeking Justice for Sexual Orientation

Blantyre — As the New Year's eve party climaxed in Lilongwe, Levi and his gay partner thought it wise to get more drinks for the patrons.

Just as they entered the hawker shop behind their house, they heard people shouting, 'they are kissing! Let's beat them up'.

"I was peeping through the half opened door and I saw them kissing, they are caught red handed, let's get rid of them," Levi heard one young man (who seemingly was calling others to come).

"By then we had locked ourselves inside the compacted shop, thinking that they may not break or destroy it," says Levi.

He says as he was thinking about this, a mob of people broke into the shop and begun to beat them up while others stole various items.

"As they were beating us up, they said all sorts of humiliating things such as: 'these are satanists, sinners, outcasts and they don't deserve to live with us in our communities," recalls Levi.

After the 'party patrons' heard this, they also ran for their dear lives giving the violent mob a chance to also break into his house, steal what they could and destroy it.

It all started when Levi transferred into the location in Likuni and opened his hawker and an internet cafe (where he also used to burn video and music cds for customers).

At first people speculated that he believed in rituals, and then the issue of him being gay came in after family members of his partner spread gossip all over the neighborhood that he was misleading their child.

"The family verbally and physically tortured me, each time they saw us together. Sometimes they could come like customers at my shop only to insult me," Levi explains, adding that he suspects that the family organized people to destroy his business and house.

"At one point I met the relations at Lilongwe depot and they harassed me in front of many people. I also had to run for dear life," he remembers.

The December 31, 2012 New Year's Eve party was his tradition to celebrate with neighbours for the seven years he lived in that location.

One thing he did not know however was the fact that the entire community believed he was gay and according to them, he did not deserve to live in that neighbourhood.

"Despite the torture, I never disclosed my sexuality to anyone even though some were already convinced that I'm gay," he says.

On this fateful night, Levi managed to escape and so did his partner but people stole from his shop, home and later burnt his whole property.

When he went to the chief of the area to seek help and justice, he said: "You deserve what you got in fact they should have killed you because this behavior is uncalled for... ."

This discouraged him to report the matter to the police, also considering that homosexuality is illegal in the country under the penal code.

Levi fled to his home village but his relations had already informed the people there about his sexuality 'fracas' that had happened in the city and people there also did not welcome him.

"When I went to Mchinji, other relations of my partner recognized me and spread the news (all over) that I was gay and I was also chased from doing anything there. Then, I lost the piece work job which I had just secured," he laments.

He says people should understand that he did not choose to be gay but rather has had that sex orientation since he was young.

"Why would I choose to do something that is always putting me in trouble and leads to a lot of people hating me?" Levi wonders.

He is one of the many homosexual people who have no peace because of their sexual orientation in this country.

Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) says in 2013 alone it documented 26 cases of Lesbians, Gays, Bi-sexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) people rights violations. These ranged from physical assault, harassment, forced eviction, loss of livelihood, excommunication from church and disowning by family members among others.

Catherine, a Blantyre resident also told Mana in an interview that she was expelled from school because she had an affair with a fellow woman.

"I have never had a boyfriend in my life. I'm attracted to fellow girls and since I also need affection, I had an affair with one in school," she said.

The 25 year old that dropped out of school on the day she was expelled is now a business lady and she says since then her life has been hell.

"My family gave no attention to any of my needs. They said I'm possessed and needed prayers and deliverance. I had to move out of the house and live with friends and make ends meet on my own," said the form three drop out.

She however appeals to the society to consider hearing the stories of LGBTI before judging, expelling them from school, torturing, destroying their property and physically assaulting them.

Philosopher and Lawyer on sexuality and Human Rights, Geodfrey Kangaude says nobody should have their human rights violated on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity or sexual expression.

"The laws of Malawi such as the Constitution and the Gender Equality Act support this position. However, older laws in our Penal Code that criminalise same sex intimacy are out of touch with human rights philosophy and need to be revised," he says.

The Constitution does not expressly mention gender identity or sexual expression. However, section 20 says "Discrimination of persons in any form is prohibited and all persons are, under any law, guaranteed equal and effective protection against discrimination on grounds of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, nationality, ethnic or social origin, disability, property, birth or other status."

Section 5 (1) of the Gender Equality Act says that 'A person shall not commit, engage in, subject another person to, or encourage the commission of any harmful practice. Harmful practice is defined under section 3 as "a social, cultural, or religious practice which, on account of sex, gender or marital status, does or is likely to- (a) undermine the dignity, health or liberty of any person; or (b) result in physical, sexual, emotional, or psychological harm to any person.

Kangaude points out that discrimination and violence against persons based on their sexuality or gender identity is gender-based violence (GBV), however, the gender machinery in Malawi has avoided addressing this.

He says that GBV against women and gender-based violence against persons because of their gender identity and sexual expression is rooted in social norms privileging men in society, and notions about who a real man should be.

"If the gender machinery does not address violence against LGBTI persons, then it is failing to tackle foundations of GBV against women. It is high time policy-makers placed LGBTI rights on the gender equality agenda," Kangaude notes.

He adds: "We should not place the burden on LGBTI persons to protect themselves, rather, we should as a society strive to promote a culture of peace, non-violence and non-discrimination."

Kangaude also observes that LGBTI persons are not second class citizens; therefore, persons experiencing violations have recourse to the justice system in Malawi.

"... . I trust the system would protect and secure the rights of any person whose rights are violated on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation," he says.

National Police Deputy Spokesperson, Kelvin Maigwa says no one from the LGBTI community reported a case of physical violation or property damage on the basis of sexual orientation.

"Unfortunately we don't have any data in our records concerning homosexuals' rights violations. If anything crops up, I promise not to hesitate to contact you," he said in a written email response to the questions Mana sent enquiring if the police have ever gotten complaints after incidents like that of Levi.

Consensual same sex sexual activity is illegal and punishable by up to 14 years in prison in addition to corporal punishment, including hard labour.

The penal code outlaws 'unnatural offenses' and indecent practices. Same sex activity can also be prosecuted as "conduct likely to cause breach of peace"

Levi is now living a nomadic life since he is homeless and is surviving on piece work yet he once had a source of income.

At the moment it is so hard for one to notice an LGBTI like Levi because they try to hide their sexual identity as much as possible since the majority of the society does not accept them and may inflict any form of violence on them yet the victims cannot report to authorities since they feel this may expose them.

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