Homosexuality in Malawi prisons posing an HIV threat to society

When the judge slammed down the gavel, and sentenced Harold (Not his real name) from Lirangwe in the outskirts of Blantyre City to three years imprisonment, he thought there is protection around the clock in jail.

Little did he know that prison may be more dangerous than the life outside?  When he stepped his foot at Chichiri maximum prison, inmates drifted by and filched swift glances at him with many dressed in shreds of clothing with no shoes.

Looking pale and weak he says, one cold and dark night in June 2009 (barely a week in prison) he was attacked while asleep on a cracked concrete floor by two energetic inmates whom he didn’t recognize by name or face but by their actions.

“I was forcefully undressed off the white shorts and a shirt. I thought I was undergoing the normal punishments but to my surprise, the inmates demanded for sex. When I resisted, they raped me. They inserted pieces of soap into my anus before forcefully penetrating,” he recalls.

Overcrowding in Malawi prison

He says the two men pounced on him, before over-powering him and started mounting on the helpless Harold as if he was an animal.

“They even fought about who should rape me first and how long they should take. It was a horrible experience I had never dreamt of. I tried to scream but they threatened to deal with me because the prison warders were aware of what was happening,” he alleges.

Harold adds: “They never use condoms. In prison, it is hell. Who avails you condoms in hell, who cares? Even when you shout, no prison warder will come to your rescue until morning when you are taken out to work.”

After his acquittal, he decided not to share a bed with his wife and showed to have difficulties in sitting on chairs. This worried his wife but she could not figure out what the problem was.

“I preferred to sleep all the time and the wounds in my private parts got severe and I had to use salt to cleanse them. My wife tried to probe me but I never opened up. I instead told her I was just traumatized by prison since it was my first time,” says Harold, before asking for a glass of cold water.

Harold says he reached at an extent of trying to use some concoctions to heal the wounds but to no avail.

While still struggling with the wounds, Harold misfortunes contiues two weeks after his release from prison, whe he developed a severe cough which forced his wife and other family members to take him to Lirangwe Health Centre where a nurse counseled and tested him for HIV/Aids and TB.

After a little while, Harold says the doctor brought the results and asked what he would do if found positive.

“I became suspicious and wondered why the doctor was asking such questions before answering to him that I would start on ARVs immediately after hearing that they can make people live a healthy life,” he says.

Harold says the nurse told him he was HIV positive and his wife negative.

“I cried and asked her how come I was positive yet my wife was negative. The answer she gave was that there are discordant couples in Malawi. I later told her what happened to me in prison and why I had difficulties in seating and sleeping,” he says.

Harold is one of thousands of men crammed into Malawi’s overcrowded prisons who  practice homosexuality  unwillingly and thereby being at risk of contracting HIV.

However, the problem is that they leave the facility without reporting or seeking medical attention that can help them with getting drugs that could prevent sexually transmitted infections like HIV.

“I‘m always bedridden in my grass thatched house, other people have responded to medication but I have failed. I’m now very thin and weak. Taking ARV drugs without food is not easy. I have to depend on handouts yet if I had not been raped in jail, I would have been able to provide for myself. It is painful,” he says.

Harlod laments that, “If it is hard for some people to complete a dosage of malaria treatment yet they know they will be fine after treatment, how about me who takes tablets every day with the knowledge that I’m going to die?”

Head of Prison Health Services, Dr Henry Ndindi acknowledges that sexual violence happens under its watch and that prisoners are among the high risk groups to contract HIV and AIDS because of tendency of men having sex with men (MSM).

He says there was evidence that MSMs are real in prisons citing a survey conducted in 2011.

“There is evidence that MSMs exist in prisons and this is supported by survey in 2011 which revealed that central prisons had a rate of 9.8 percent , medium size prisons 4.1 percent and small size prisons 3.8 percent,” he says.

He says that prohibition of condoms and lubricant distribution in prisons due to criminalization of MSMs is one of the challenges faced in prisons where MSM cases are evident.

“Overcrowding, lack of basic necessities like soap and food limited access to HIV prevention treatment and care and support services and sexual violence are among the problems that are encouraging MSM in prisons,” says Dr Ndindi.

He also observes that lack of HIV policy for prisoners and MSM strategy legislation is another factor encouraging this behavior.

He therefore, emphasizes the need for law reforms to be enacted to reduce human rights violations of those male prisoners who have sex with men and providing them with all prevention information and necessities.

Human Rights activist Billy Mayaya said failure by government to prevent and address sexual violence in prison will have dire consequences for this country in the long run.

“By failing to prevent sexual violence from taking place inside prison walls, you are automatically putting the whole nation at risk. We know that HIV prevalence is very high in prisons in this country and most of the time when rape occurs, condoms are not used,” he says.

He says the sad reality is that prisoners are not kept behind bars forever as most of those who were raped while in incarceration leave the correctional facilities without having reported or testing for HIV.

Mayaya notes that in a country like Malawi, where there is a secular constitution the rights of all are respected irrespective of creed or sexual orientation.

“In this regard, Mayaya reminds government that access and availability of condoms to all including prisoners is a rights issue.

Chiwoza Bandawe, clinical psychologist at College of Medicine says inmates who have been sexually victimized often take the scars of abuse home with them.

Bandawe notes that offenders who have been sexually abused take it out on children and women because they want to reclaim their masculinity.

“An offender who has been raped doesn’t see a child. He sees an object that he can abuse.”

He says the trauma and HIV acquired during prison sexual violence then bleed into families and communities.

“If unaddressed, these health implications, amongst many others, are similarly fed back into broader society when inmates are released,” he says.

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