After the uproar that followed the arrests of homosexual men Tionge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza in 2009, I did not expect the government to ever again arrest anybody on grounds of homosexuality.
Yes homosexuality is illegal and taboo in Malawi but I think there are better ways of handling such cases rather than subjecting suspected individuals to criminal proceedings.
And considering the international perspective on issues of minority rights, Malawi needs to tread carefully on such matters for the sake of its international relations.
It is true that the majority of Malawians are not in favour of homosexual relationships and that the government needs to take into considerations the views of most Malawians when handling the issue.
What is important for the government is therefore to find a right balance on the matter to make sure that it does not offend both the people as well as international partners on the issue.
The incident in Lilongwe, for example, could have been handled in a better way by the police. Since the arrest of two was done by members of the community, the police did well to take the two into the custody as that could have protected them against mob justice.
However, the police should not have place charges against them. They could simply have kept them overnight and release them the following day.
They should have also been advised to relocate from the area and avoid publicly showing their orientation considering the views of many people in the country on matters homosexuality.
Malawi is going through a lot of challenges that require international support to be addressed. Getting into conflict with development partners over an issue that could have been avoided is an unnecessary distraction that should not have been allowed to occur.
Going forward, it should be emphasised that while is important for African countries to respect human rights – including minority rights – it is also important for western countries to realise that homosexuality is also a cultural and religious issue that is considered taboo by many Africans.
Even in Europe and America, there are still elements that don’t accept homosexuality and it took hundreds of years for the general populations and governments to accept it as a human right.
It is therefore important for Africans to be given time too to understand the issue and get through all the steps, in order to arrive at a point where laws can be reviewed with widespread support to recognise such minority rights.
In the current situation in Malawi, it would be tricky for politicians to advance the issue of gay rights since the negative perception of the issue among the majority of their voters means they could lose votes for promoting something they consider alien and in some cases sinful.
Even in South Africa — which is one African country that strives to uphold gay rights – many people still don’t believe that it is normal and acceptable for people of the same sex to be involved in a sexual affair.
South Africa legalised same-sex marriage in 2006, becoming just the fifth country to do so. Gays serve openly in the armed forces, and may adopt children. However, while the laws ensure equal treatment, South African society is not wholly welcoming. A 2008 survey found that 84 percent of South Africans considered homosexual behavior “wrong”.
So Africa still has a long way to go in terms of embracing homosexuality as a normal way of life. As long as the majority of the masses remain opposed to legalisation of homosexuality, it will be difficult for politicians to initiate steps to change present laws.
In Malawi, what is required is sustained civic education to educate members of the general public on gay rights. Just like African countries have over the years accepted democracy and civil rights as the way of practicing politics, the same can be done with gay rights.
Instead of making adoption of gay rights as a pre-requisite for eligibility of aid, western countries should first provide funding and other resources for educating African people on minority rights.
With a continued campaign and time, a good number of Africans would probably start appreciating minorities and come to terms with the fact that while we may not all believe in homosexuality, we should also accept that there are some people who practice it and that we have to respect their freedom to choose the way they want to live.
But countries should not be forced to legalise homosexuality as a pre-requisite for international aid. African governments too should stop arresting homosexuals. Some distraction are best avoided. Thumbs down to the police and the government for the arrests of the two homosexual men in Lilongwe.
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