16 May 2016

Malawi: A Dangerous Life If You're Gay - Malawi's Homophobic Legislation

Photo: See-ming Lee/UN
File photo.

Failure by the government to come up with a clear-cut stance on homosexuality is endangering the lives of gays and lesbians in Malawi.

This is the clear message from activists lobbying for the rights of minority groups ahead of International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) on 17 May.

In Malawi homosexuality is illegal and the offence attracts up to ten years in jail for men and up to five for women. In 2010, the country saw the arrest of the first gay couple who were given a 14-year prison term, the maximum for the offence. They were later released after the sudden visit by the United Nation's Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. The current government has since put a moratorium on the law, suspending any further arrests.

Daliso*, 25, from Blantyre says: "I started having feelings for boys when I was 13 years. I now have a boyfriend who lives here in the city and we have been in relationship for something like a year." Then he added quickly: "I also have a girlfriend to wave off suspicion from friends and relatives."

Daliso is scared to tell his relatives about his sexuality. "I tried to tell some close friends but most of them have since been shunning me. Of course I don't trust even medical personnel, so I can't access reproductive health services."

His fears are well grounded. Malawians who publicly reveal they are gay meet arrest at worst and fierce discrimination at best. When 26-year-old gay man Eric Samisa appeared on the local television with his bold 'legalise or kill us' speech, the police moved in quickly detaining both him and the reporter. He reportedly received death threats and has since gone into hiding. Efforts to locate and talk to him for this article proved futile.

Discrimination, health and HIV

Not many people have Eric's opportunity or would want to take the risk of talking to the public about their plight; mostly people from sexual minorities feel they have to live a low profile which makes it hard to reach them with HIV and reproductive health services. This is the case in spite of being more at risk of HIV.

Timothy Mtambo, executive director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, said: "Studies we've conducted in hospitals and health centres reveal homosexuals are not being treated when found with sexual health complications. Instead of treating them, the medical personnel would rather start by publicising to their colleagues. You can see why many people never go to the hospital [... ] Most health providers hide behind the laws of the country as a scapegoat for not treating them."

Mtambo finds this ironic as the government requested and received money from the Global Fund to assist in HIV interventions including among men who have sex with men and women respectively. "The government should lead the nation and be decisive. People in this country don't understand this issue," said Mtambo.

What is the legal situation?

Although there is a moratorium on the law, the attorney general Kalekeni Kaphale said: "Gays and lesbians can still get arrested depending on the discretion of the police." Earlier this year, the spokesperson for an opposition party is on record to have said people should be killing gays in the country.

The discrimination is infuriating human rights organisations. Gift Trapence, executive director of Centre for the Development of People, said: "The Malawi government has a duty to enact laws that protects citizens equally. The government has also a duty to repeal any discriminatory laws that are inconsistent with the spirit of constitution and international human rights standards. [... ] Gays and lesbians in Malawi need to be accorded full human rights like any other person."

Meanwhile, in December 2015, the former minister of information said the issue of homosexuality would be addressed through a referendum, although did not say when this would take place. When asked for an update, the current minister of information, Patricia Kaliati was unable to indicate progress, but added, she could not: "contradict her predecessor on the matter."

Mtambo said: "Holding a referendum is the most fallacious statement the government has ever made. A referendum cannot be conducted on a human rights issue."

While the government continues to use delay tactics in tackling this issue, it is getting harder to ignore the rights of gays and lesbians. The newly established global goals for sustainable development - to which Malawi is a signatory - calls for equality and ensuring healthy lives for all people. Ensuring all people have access to health services if vital in the global target to end the AIDS epidemic. But with homophobic legislation in place, the question must be asked: how can Malawi meet its obligations and achieve this goal by 2030?

*Name changed to protect identity

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