Life for gays in Malawi: Fear and stigma

Fearing persecution after being outed as gay, Aniz Mitha fled Malawi leaving behind his well-off Muslim family and four-year-old son, he headed for South Africa, where he became a sex worker to survive.

Fearing persecution after being outed as gay, Aniz Mitha left behind his well-off Muslim family and fled Malawi AFP/GIANLUIGI GUERCIA

Fearing persecution after being outed as gay, Aniz Mitha fled Malawi.

Leaving behind his well-off Muslim family and four-year-old son, he headed for South Africa, where he became a sex worker to survive.

Mitha’s case highlights the problems in Malawi, a holdout in southern Africa, where legal liberalisation for gays is otherwise gaining speed.

Botswana this week joined Angola, Mozambique, Seychelles and South Africa on the path towards decriminalising homosexuality, with a verdict by its High Court to scrap decades-old anti-gay laws.

These landmark cases “set an important framework… which will hopefully be emulated elsewhere in Africa,” Anneke Meerkotter of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) told AFP.

But “hopefully” is the keyword. Elsewhere on the continent, the picture is quite different.

Last month, Kenya’s High Court upheld laws punishing “carnal knowledge … against the order of nature” by up to 14 years in jail. Chad and Uganda have also introduced or toughened legislation.

“UNNATURAL OFFENCE

In Malawi, a conservative religious country, the situation seems particularly entrenched, say campaigners.

Its penal code expressly criminalises same-sex relations as an “unnatural offence”, punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) last October said Malawi’s laws fuelled a climate of fear, arbitrary arrest, violence and discrimination against gays. Many young people, like Mitha, are cast out of their families because of their sexual orientation.

Gay rights burst into the news in 2010 when a couple was jailed for gross indecency after holding the country’s first same-sex public “wedding”.

Then-president Bingu wa Mutharika said the pair had committed a crime against Malawi’s culture, religion and laws. He later pardoned them on “humanitarian grounds” after a meeting with the UN secretary-general.

When Joyce Banda succeeded him as president in 2012, she promised widespread reforms to the colonial-era legislation and even announced a moratorium on arrests for those breaking laws that criminalise consensual same-sex conduct.

“IGNORED

But after Banda lost a bid for the presidency, these gains were reversed, say campaigners.

Beatrice Mateyo believes religious conservatism has played a core part in perpetuating stereotypes and anti-gay hostility AFP/GIANLUIGI GUERCIA

Under Bingu’s brother Peter Mutharika, who recently won his second presidential term in office, “this group of people have just tended to be ignored”, gender activist Beatrice Mateyo said.

Activists have been waiting since 2013 for the courts to set a date for a hearing to repeal the anti-gay laws.

“Malawi has several court cases that are lying in the courts and we hope the case scenario of Botswana is also going to inform the legal processes here in Malawi,” Gift Trapence, head of Malawian rights group Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP) told AFP.

Mateyo believes religious conservatism has played a core part in perpetuating stereotypes and anti-gay hostility.

Most of the 18 million people in Malawi are Christian or Muslim, whose religious education often describes homosexuality as taboo or a sin.

In 2016, about 3,000 Christians marched through Blantyre and Lilongwe, carrying signs saying “Homosexuality is abomination”.

“We are seen as a God-fearing nation, so society tends to skew towards religion where you are seen as a sinner … And if you are of a different sexuality then you are perceived as a sinner,” Mateyo said.

People who are not heterosexual, “will rather remain in the closet – hidden,” Mateyo said.

“For the very few people that are open, life is very difficult because people tend to label them.”

“JUST WANT TO BE SAFE

Sammy McJessie, 28, a lesbian who is also intersex, meaning there is no self-assignment to gender, said everyday tasks in Malawi were like walking on eggshells.

Sammy McJessie, a lesbian who is also intersex, said everyday tasks in Malawi were like walking on eggshells AFP/GIANLUIGI GUERCIA

“I’m scared of being attacked, even in public spaces,” McJessie said. “You go to the bank, they look at your ID … you have to prove that you’re this particular sex that was assigned to you at birth.”

McJessie has a three-month-old relationship with a local woman but said, “I cannot take her to the local market to buy vegetables because that’s going to start another issue.”

CEDP, working with activists, set up four drop-in centres in Lilongwe, Blantyre, Mzuzu and Mangochi in 2016.

Equipped with a recreation room, gym, large kitchen, medical centre and 24-hour security, the centres support around 2,000 people.

“When we are here, we know each other,” a 27-year-old carpenter who declined to be named told AFP at the centre, his partner seated next to him.

Once a week, he walks 30km to the Lilongwe drop-in house to collect condoms, thus escaping condemnation by people in his neighbourhood.

Mitha returned to Malawi after contracting HIV in South Africa. He was unable to stay there because as an illegal, he had no access to treatment.

The centre has been a haven of hope in Malawi, he said.

“In this space you can wear whatever you want, you can feel any way you want because this is the only safe space that you have.”

“But out there it is hard.”

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National CEO
Guest
National CEO

I don’t understand some things as a CEO. The man has a four year child? And he is gay? So he is practicing both, straight and gay sex? Gay sex is like witchcraft. Please practice it in secret.

Gogo Chalo
Guest
Gogo Chalo

In short, there is no place for gays in Malawi. Go somewhere else but here NO. We find you, we deal with you! And once i discover the drop in centre i will come and torch it myself

ANZENGO
Guest
ANZENGO

kodi awerengi anzanga Mulungu anayikanso chibelekero ndi ma basiketi a mazira mu anal canal?

123
Guest

C’mon we have tippex to worry about. That’s what’s up not the gay rights I don’t understand why can’t you people perceive it, here in Africa Gay topic is a taboo, we are Christians and believe in multiplication, this a agenda is Satanic in nature what they are trying to impose on us is alien to us Africans, after we accept their idiotic practice then they will now say you are you free to change your sex ( transgender) etc. I mean what is their aim behind it I don’t understand? Report has it that over a million people in… Read more »

Mmalawi
Guest

Stupidity of the highest order

mtete
Guest
mtete

Until and unless someone convinces me that the LGBTs have control on why they were born this, these people must be left free. Can we force them to change their ways? It’s like forcing a non drinker to partake in alcoholic drinks

Wiseman
Guest
Wiseman

Kuthako nkobibira osati kunyengana. Stigma yo amapanga okha chifukwa akudziwa kuti kunyengana kuthako ndi uchitsiru,usatana komanso umbuli.

Jonathan gwaza
Guest

No space for you fools. Just dare to show off your stupidity in public, we will heavily deal with you. Worse than dogs indeed.

C Banda
Guest
C Banda

Hello World,

Comments to this website have to be moderated before being allowed to be published. Note that in this published comment from Johnathan Gwaza there is a threat of physical violence towards LGBTs. Are threats such as this allowed in other countries?

Then there is the published comparison of LGBTs being lower than dogs; does this happen in other countries too?

Bristone Mabichi
Guest
Bristone Mabichi

Mugabe of Zimbabwe once said that these people are worse than dogs. In fact, gays lesbians and YYas are worse off than pigs. You will not find a resting place in African homes. Tell you paymasters to relocate you somewhere.

The Patriot
Guest
The Patriot

“Mitha went back home to Malawi after contracting HIV”, sad ending to a homosexual story! The problem with homosexuality issues in Malaw and Africa is that Western powers want to force these issues on Africans! If Africa is left to its own vices, things will naturally change…..whether towards tolerance to gays or intolerance. Either way, the Africans themselves will make their chioce without duress!!Iimagine if this was polygamy(an African cultural norm) and being promoted in the West where it is criminalized? Are polygamists not consenting adults??