The conviction of Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza for sodomy in 2010 attracted international attention it even became a subject of discussion between United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki- Moon who met former President Bingu wa Mutharika in Lilongwe.
In the end, clearly at Ban’s urging and on top of a raft of donor threats, Mutharika pardoned the two.
But even then, he still insisted that “these boys committed a crime against our culture, our religion and our laws.”
He was right. Or wasn’t he? People’s perception of homosexuality in Malawi has revolved around culture, religion and law. Of the three, the law is what can be changed easily but not culture or religion.
Yet there has been no commitment by political leaders to change the outdated sodomy law that was introduced by colonial governments who found the practice prevalent in most African societies.
Around the continent, anti-gay voices have come from some leaders either by consenting to laws against the practice or criticising the practice as un-African: Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, former Nigeria president Goodluck Jonathan and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni have all been critical of homosexuality.
More extreme among these voices is the one from Ghambia’s Yahya Jahmmeh who called for “gay people’s throats to be slit”.
Actions by donors have only gone to give these voices a basis. It is not unusual for some donors to use gay rights as a condition to open aid taps.
In turn, African leaders have so often used the unpopularity of gay issues to discredit both the donors and the practice and win the support of their people who would apparently be prejudiced by the so called laws, culture and religion.
So, two fronts emerge: CSOs and donors on one side and leaders or governments and the people on the other.
In Malawi, political leaders have skirted around the issue by claiming that it is only Malawians’ views that will be respected. This would mean a referendum. But would a referendum be in favour of gay rights in Malawi?
President Peter Mutharika took this referendum position prior to the elections last year clearly knowing well that Malawi cannot afford a luxury of such a referendum when, after 51 years of independence, the country cannot fund its own elections.
As homosexuality is an issue of law, one would expect that members of Parliament are better placed to provide direction in decriminalising same sex relationships and change the law. But this is yet to be debated exhaustively in Parliament. After all, those MPs are people first before they are MPs.
In this cycle, Civil Society Organsations (CSOs) – who have taken up the task of advancing the rights of minority groups –should accept criticism for their half-hearted approach in concluding the gay rights issue.
In 2014, Secretary for Justice and Solicitor General Janet Chikaya-Banda told the United Nations Human Rights Committee that “the police were ordered to stop arresting people who engage in same-sex sexual activity.” This meant anti-gay laws which target lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender and intersex individuals were suspended but not repealed.
Did the CSOs use this as platform for their campaign?
For all we know, the CSOs seem to usually come to life when the international community shows interest. But they fail to seize the opportunity and utilise that momentum to have the issue concluded.
Despite the suspension of anti-gay laws, as the Solicitor General claimed a year ago, the man-hunting and arrest of the two boys in Lilongwe on Tuesday for allegedly indulging in gay activities in the confines of their homes will once again attract the interest of international community, especially as the world commemorated Human Rights Day yesterday themed ‘Our Rights! Our Freedoms! Always!’
And then the CSOs will pick that donor string up, an effort that could possibly stoke clashes with the government.
There is usually tension between the CSOs and government. While CSOs enjoy full support of international donors, government is deprived of the same. The prominence of CSOs has coincided with retrenchment of the state in social services provision. It is not surprising that the government criticises these organisations of advancing the agenda of the donors.
The government could be right. What the CSOs have failed to do is to detach themselves from their international partners and attempt to clarify that gay rights – just like other human rights – are what these vulnerable groups must enjoy.
They have failed t o clarify that gay rights are not donor rights but human rights.
The issue of gay rights is misunderstood so often perhaps because the awareness is not enough to change people’s perception. There is the risk that review or repealing of gay rights laws could be deemed as an endorsement of same sex marriage. However, it is high time all stakeholders looked at a bigger picture especially in the context of the fight against HIV/Aids.
Same sex partners continue to face discrimination as far as access to health services is concerned. It is well-documented that the risk of HIV infection for men who have sex with fellow men (MSM) is huge. A lot of gays operate underground, and it is not easy to reach them with HIV and AIDS interventions.
Perhaps the arrest of Cuthbert Kulemera and Kelvin Gonani is a stark reminder to the CSOs that they have abdicated; they serve their own interests and are seen to advance the agenda of donors.
Yet for every well-meaning Malawian, the reality is that minority groups are here and they deserve to enjoy the human rights like everyone else, that they must not be hunted down like animals and they must not be subjected to hospital tests by officials to prove that they were engaged in same sex activity.
The work of CSOs on gay rights cannot be based on the voice and the support they get from donors to advance the gay rights cause.
In siding with donors and banking on their support, CSOs will not win the war against a government that is denied support from the same donor.
There are inherent, local issues to deal with on the matter. Anti-gay laws in African countries remain key. Leaders will convince the electorate that same sex marriages are against “our culture and religion and our laws”.
They will claim that it is because they are defending those laws, culture and religion that their countries are being denied support by donors and fought by pro-gay rights CSOs. In this respect, it is unlikely that CSOs will find it easy to bend governments.
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