Debating homosexuality and human rights in Malawi

When Malawi’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice Ralph Kasambara announced earlier this month that police had been ordered not to arrest anyone suspected in “engaging in homosexuality,” it was lauded by Human Rights Watch as “courageous” and by Amnesty International as “a step in the right direction.” A day later, Kasambara denied ever making the statement. As one of 36 African countries with laws banning same-sex relationships, the announcement suspending these laws has re-opened a debate on the subject which has been raging within Malawi for two intense years.

Since 2010 when two Malawian men — Steve Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga — were arrested, charged and convicted for their same-sex engagement ceremony in the city of Blantyre, the issue of homosexuality has evolved into a national dialogue. The Malawian NGO, the Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP), has taken the lead, together with other NGOs, in promoting the rights of LGBTI people. Established in 2005, CEDEP has been carrying out sensitization campaigns on the rights of gay people and other minority groups. In collaboration with Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action , a South African organization, CEDEP published a collection of stories written by the Malawian LGBTI community in 2010.

Within her first one hundred days in office, current president Joyce Banda put the gay rights issue on the national agenda by announcing in her first State of the Nation address, on May 18, 2012, that the statute criminalizing homosexuality in Malawi law would be taken to parliament for repeal. Stunned by the sharp, immediate rebukes her remarks attracted, the president quickly rephrased herself and said the Malawian parliament would only enact a law that reflected the wishes of the majority of Malawians. There are no illusions as to what would be the outcome of a parliamentary debate on the topic, let alone a national referendum, as is being suggested by anti-gay rights activists.

The debate in Malawi often centers on the nature of homosexuality itself. A recent series in the  Weekend Nation, a weekly newspaper, described what life looks like for Malawian gays, and posed the question of whether homosexuality is a “natural,” biological condition or a choice. The author of the series, Bright Mhango, wondered why Malawian homosexuals don’t seem keen on openly fighting for their human rights, leaving it to others to do it for them.

Kenyan legal scholar Makau Mutua argues, in a chapter appearing in the book African Sexualities: A Reader, that homosexuality is about a person’s existential identity, much like biological sex (gender), race, ethnicity or disability. Mutua identifies an interesting contradiction that apparently slips through the logic of those who use religion to argue that homosexuality is un-African.

He says the hatred against gay people in Africa today does not originate from African culture, rather it is a product of the propagation in Africa of foreign religions, particularly Christianity and Islam. Homosexuality existed in Africa prior to Christianity and Islam, but there was no homophobia, argues Mutua.

In Malawi, the most easily identifiable and openly gay people have been young men who go out with Western expatriates and tourists. Some of these young men have told Malawian researchers about making a choice to become gay because of the money from gay expatriates and tourists. To the ordinary Malawian, therefore, homosexuality seems like a deliberate choice one makes. This belief is reinforced by some LGBTI rights activists who prefer to talk about “choice” rather than “nature.”

The Weekend Nation has recently started publishing a paid-for column, called “Sexual Minority Forum.” It is authored by Undule Mwakusungula and Gift Trapence, leading human rights activists. A few gay readers have submitted letters to the columnists, some of which have been re-printed in the column. A recent letter read: “being gay is not an imported element, habit, or anything. There have been gay people in Malawi for generations.”

A South African activist with the Coalition of African Lesbians put this question into perspective at a recent nonviolence training workshop when she argued that today’s social justice struggles need to focus on freedom, autonomy and — yes — choices. To argue that homosexuality is only biological or natural robs gay people of their human agency and power to choose, but to argue that homosexuality is no more than a simple choice is also to deny the reality which many people feel.

But the entire discourse is at great risk of being side-tracked from one addressing concepts of human rights for and the humanity of homosexual people to one centered on the role of international agencies and foreign interference.

Particularly damaging is the undue influence of Western donors and activists. Their loud pronouncements have wrecked the chances of local ownership in the debate and created the appearance of a foreign agenda that is using the economic vulnerability of African governments and their overdependence on aid to engage in what is being seen as cultural imperialism.

Following the conviction of Steve Monjeza and Tionge Chimbalanga, for example, the British government reduced its aid to Malawi by $30 million and British Prime Minister David Cameron threatened more cuts to governments which did not respect gay rights. In December 2011 both U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said American aid would be tied to minority rights, and that gay rights were human rights. As necessary and timely as these statements and actions were, in Africa they have been seen us undue interference. If unchecked, they can potentially trigger chain reactions that could drastically roll back the gains African countries have made in human rights in the last two decades.

It is not hard to understand why donors and international human rights organizations are speaking out. Since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, world leaders are wary of putting too much respect into claims of sovereignty, when the human rights and lives of innocent citizens are being threatened. African governments are known to be more accountable to Western donors than to their own people, an argument that has been made against President Joyce Banda as it was made against her predecessors. Left to the dictatorial tendencies of majoritarian rule, and in the absence of local and international attention, minorities would be on their own, at the mercy of a mob mentality dressed up as the democratic wishes of the people. Malawian grassroots nonviolence civil society groups know this, and that is why they are unrelenting even in the face of duplicitous and self-serving accusations of being Western stooges.

There has been enough violence against sexual minorities, physical as well as psychological, to warrant concern across national borders. Malawians, of all people, know how important international solidarity can be when a government is abusing its majority power and denying some of its citizens their fundamental rights and freedoms. Malawi’s own transition from one party rule to multiparty rule from the late 1980s to 1994 benefited significantly from international solidarity.

Surprisingly, claims of cultural imperialism are arising from civil society groups and religious leaders who have previously been counted on to stand up for human rights. Some of the activists were only recently actively seeking the support of Western donors at the height of late president Bingu wa Mutharika’s abuses, oblivious of any concerns over fears of cultural imperialism. Many even argued that there was no such thing as imperialism at all. Now that the donors are pushing for the rights of LGBTI people, some of these activists and religious leaders have suddenly discovered imperialism, and are up in arms against it.

For example, Dr. Joseph Bvumbwe, chairperson of the Malawi Council of Churches, recently told the media that: “We should not treat abnormality as normality. When there is something abnormal, we must recognize it as such and not treat it as a normality.” Dr. Bvumbwe went on to claim, without offering proof, that the campaign for gay rights was only happening in Malawi and not in neighboring countries such as Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Zambia. The implication being that there is an external hand at work.

Nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged that the external interference from donor countries is a pernicious problem. Africans are wary of the excesses that have resulted from a seemingly objective “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, taken advantage of by surreptitious imperialistic agendas. That interference has made it difficult for Malawians to carry on the debate on their own terms, in their own contexts, and subjecting their disagreements and differences to scrutiny. Statements about tying aid to gay rights are counterproductive as they jeopardize the struggle for more awareness, better education and information on LGBTI issues. The bellicose rhetoric gets in the way of the kind of civil, constructive debate that needs to happen.

There has to be a way to distinguish between actual cultural imperialism and a genuine solidarity for minority rights. When a society fails to provide equal human rights and protections to all members, particularly those considered “different,” the marginalized will need local and international support and solidarity.

The danger of external interests taking advantage of the situation and pushing for self-centered agendas is real. But the struggle for African self-determination will be meaningless if we fail to distinguish between imperialism on the one hand, and genuine international solidarity on the other — accepting our obligations to co-exist with those who seem different.

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