Joyce Banda before delivering her first state of the nation address at Malawi’s Parliament building in Lilongwe. Photo by Desiree Buitenbos.
Malawi’s President Joyce Banda knows how to impress donors.
In her first months in office, Banda has appeased the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) call to devalue the Malawi Kwacha, and announced that the country will soon loosen its tough stance on homosexuality.
The latter made international headlines, including praise from John Baird, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister.
“We are encouraged by her recent commitment to repeal discriminatory legislation, including legislation that persecutes gays and lesbians,” Baird said in a statement.
And local human rights activists couldn’t have agreed more.
Gift Trapense, director of the Center for the Development of People (CEDEP), acknowledges that repealing the law requires a parliamentary vote which might be tough to pass. But he argues that changing the law is imperative for the fight against HIV/AIDS in Malawi.
“We commend the government for taking that bold step in terms of respecting international human rights norms. It will go a long way to build the image of Malawi which was not good in the previous administration,” says Trapense.
“When we talk about men having sex with men, we find that some have girlfriends, some are married which means that we are connected in terms of sexual activity. If you can’t prevent HIV amongst one group then you are not doing anything in terms of the whole pandemic.”
Generally speaking, African nations condemn same-sex relationships. In Northern Africa, homosexuals are sentenced to death. While in the South, with the exceptions of South Africa and Mozambique, the maximum penalty is 14 years imprisonment.
In Malawi, some religious leaders argue that God created man and woman for a reason. They say anything else is abnormal and perverted.
But Banda’s appeal to retract “bad laws” made under late president Bingu Wa Mutharika has presented southern Africa’s first female president with a dilemma. On the one hand, Banda is succumbing to international pressure to honour human rights agendas. On the other, she is the leader of a country where homophobic sentiment is the norm. She risks losing popular support.
Within 48 hours of Banda’s surprising announcement during her first state of the nation address in May, her words were put to the test when a national newspaper ran a story about a lesbian couple in Blantyre publicly declaring their engagement. The women, Ruth Banda and Redgner Mmangausi, were quoted in the article as saying that they were so in love that society’s views of them didn’t matter.
This story was reminiscent of a saga from two years ago.
In a similar circumstance, two men, Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, announced their plans to marry. Under Mutharika, the men were arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison for committing “gross indecency and unnatural acts”. They were later pardoned on humanitarian grounds after a visit from the United Nations secretary general, Ban-Ki Moon. But Mutharika never faltered on his stance that the men had violated Malawi’s cultural and religious laws.
Now Banda, who ascended to presidency after Mutharika’s sudden death, was faced with the same predicament.
Initially, it seemed like the lesbian couple’s arrest was imminent, however rumours were put to rest after moratorium was declared on the law.
Banda showed leadership by choosing not to back down.
It has since come out that the article that started the controversy was a fabrication. Both the author and the publishing house are now facing libel lawsuits. However, the episode has opened up the debate on whether Malawi, a self-described “God-Fearing Nation”, is ready to tolerate LGBT communities.
There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.