Mercy (not her real name) smiles a lot. She has a sharp, pretty face with slanted eyes and straight, white teeth.
When she talks, she does so in an even, clear voice, her faint Malawian accent lending the words an irregular rhythm.
We meet in a street in Blantyre City, near her former school where she has just been expelled.
Although the story she tells me is regarded as a taboo in the Southern African landlocked country, Mercy does not show remorseful emotions as she recounts it amid a slight narrowing of the eyes, a glance to one side, and a short pause in her narrative.
She explains that to break down and cry would be to surrender to something she needs to resist because she is a woman who defines herself by strong survival principles.
A 24 year old Mercy was attending high school studies at the prestigious Michiru girls’ boarding school in Blantyre City when she realized about her sexuality.
“I knew [about my sexuality] at school, but those things you don’t talk about openly,” she says.
“It’s something you never speak out loud. I was brought up a Christian. Every day, these pastors are preaching that a lesbian or gay person should be stoned to death that they should die. If you heard that, would you be open?”
While in form one at school, Mercy used to spend most of her time alone being new at the campus.
Her loneliness and increasingly isolated life, forced her to crave companionship. And then, one day on her way to the cafeteria for supper , she met a fellow student called Deborah (not real name).
“She spoke a different language,” says Mercy, “but we just connected. We went to my hostel after supper, we talked and then we met up five more times.”
The two of them became closer but, they were careful about how they acted together in public. They started sharing beds, a thing that aroused the suspicion of fellow students.
Sometimes her friends would ask why she never had a boy friend.
“I used lots of excuses – I’m not yet ready, or I have a boy friend who doesn’t live in the same area,” she says. “It was difficult because you cannot be open [about your sexuality].
You can’t socialize like any other person. A lot of the time, you have to keep your distance. You feel you’re not yourself. It makes things really hard.
“This is the reality of being in modern Malawi, a place where homosexuality is criminalized and punishable under the penal code.
In March the two students were found romantically kissing and fondling in the school hostel.
The girl, who found the two, was asked to keep mum and, promised money which she demanded to be given in three days time or report the matter to the school authorities.
“The student who found us had threatened to tell the whole school unless we paid her money that we promise for her to keep mum. She demanded to be given $80 within four days,” she says.
During the four days, the whole story was all over the campus that we were caught kissing, after the student who found us reported the matter to the school authorities.
“The matter was handed over to the class teacher who expressed her disappointment in us. She narrated the issue to other school authorities, who demanded us to report to the headmaster’s office the following day,” she says.
Mercy and Deborah were the following morning dismissed from school because they were caught having sex.
“Instead of going home I went to a friend’s house. My plan was to spend a week there and to phone my mom and tell her everything over the phone. I wanted her to be able to digest it all and to try and understand. I wanted to consult with my aunties, and others. I wanted my mom to be comfortable with the whole situation before going home,” says Mercy.
Already suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, Mercy narrated the whole story to her parents, who furiously told her they were not ready to send her to any school for embarrassing them.
“To say it was painful is an understatement,” says Mercy now. “You can
take being hit but being humiliated around God knows how many people – you lose your dignity. I wish I could die now. Right now lam just staying because even my parents have told me they are not ready to send me to any boarding school”
The school authorities refused to comment anything on the matter.
When trying to seek comments from some teachers at the school on the matter they also refused that they fear being penalized by the principal.
“Who want to be fired? I cannot comment anything on this matter because it is too sensitive and if being found l can be penalized,” said one teacher.
Same sex-liason is illegal in Malawi. The penal code prohibits “carnal knowledge against the order of nature, “attempts to commit “carnal knowledge against the other order of nature and acts of gross indecency.
According to the Malawi penal code, section 137A provides that any female person who, whether in public or private, commits any act of gross indecency with any female person, or procures another female person to commit any act of gross indecency with her, or attempts to procure the commission of any such act by any female person with herself or with another female person, whether in public or private, shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable to imprisonment for five years.
Clinical psychologist at College of Medicine Chiwoza Bandawe, says girls like Deborah suffer trauma because of the treatment which they were given at school.
He says this can affect their education, since they feel isolated after being axed from school.
“Trauma that acquired during at school bleed into families and communities. If undressed, these health implications, amongst many others, are similarly fed back into broader society when they are grown up,” he says.
Human Rights activist Billy Mayaya said lack of an ideological stand on homosexuality acts, which are currently in public domain infringes the rights of many people like the two girls from Michiru Boarding School.
Mayaya says there is need for the country to engage in serious and logical debate on issues of MSM’s and WSM’s, adding that there is no global consensus on the matter therefore it is important that people understand issues in order to appreciate the context in which they exist.
Mayaya points out that any violation of the rights citing the case of Mercy and Deborah is a serious breach of both international human rights standards as well as the Republican constitution.
Section 20 Chapter four of the Malawi constitutions among others call for non discrimination.
He called upon the two girls to claim their rights and not simply grovel for sympathy, adding that rights are nonnegotiable and if there are complaints they should be directed to institutions such as the Malawi Human Rights Commission so that they can seek redress.
The number of students in boarding schools like Mercy and Deborah is increasing slowly but steadily in Malawi, but attention to the minority group’s sexual rights is still static even though rights of such groups are infringed.–PanosFollow and Subscribe Nyasa TV :