Malawi government plays double standards on same-sex relations

More than one third of the world’s countries still consider same-sex sexual activity illegal, among them Malawi, whose government is giving mixed messages about the rights of homosexuals.

More than one third of the world’s countries still consider same-sex sexual activity illegal, among them Malawi, whose government is giving mixed messages about the rights of homosexuals.

Although the number of countries which criminalise same-sex relations has fallen from 92 in 2006 (48 per cent of UN Member States) to 75 in 2015 (39 per cent) this situation is still unacceptable, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.

Malawi’s government put its foot down at the United Nations Human Rights Council’s 30th Session in Geneva in September when it rejected the acceptance of same sex relations. In Malawi, people found guilty of having homosexual relations can face up to 14 years in prison.

Global Fund grant

But on 21 October, Malawi’s president, Peter Mutharika, made a historic gesture when he accepted a US$332 million grant, to expand treatment and prevention for HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. The grant will also be used to build resilient and sustainable systems for health.

This brings the total Global Fund commitment to Malawi to US$616 million between 2014 and 2017. For organisations who support sexual minorities, the good news is that US$389,000 of this money will be used to target about 40,000 men who have sex with men with tailor-made HIV prevention, testing and counselling programmes.

Defending the government’s policies, the attorney general Kalekeni Kaphale told the media that just as government provides healthcare for other citizens who have violated the law, it has a duty to provide healthcare for homosexuals. He added, homosexuals have the right to health care, they also pay tax just like any other Malawian.

Double standards

Unfortunately, as the government seeks funding from the Global Fund to deal with HIV among men who have sex with men, the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Board is undermining this work. The Board, a statutory body which regulates all NGOs in Malawi, is criss-crossing the country, spreading propaganda about organisations that are working to reduce discrimination among men who have sex with men.

For some time, the NGO Board team has been visiting districts, castigating and condemning NGOs that are doing exactly what government proposes to do under the Global Fund programmes.

Executive director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) Timothy Mtambo said that recently in Lilongwe, Emily Banda, NGO Board chairperson, and Patricia Kaliati, minister of gender and child welfare, took turns to condemn efforts by NGOs to target sexual minorities. They gave the impression that in Malawi, men who have sex with men and other sexual minorities are not entitled to the rights enshrined in the constitution, including the right to access health services.

Human rights abuses

Various studies have established that HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men in Malawi is alarmingly high. Research conducted by the John Hopkins School of Public Health, in partnership with the Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP), recorded HIV prevalence rates among this group as 21.4 per cent.

The same study indicated that more than 34 per cent of men interviewed had been subject to human rights abuses related to their sexuality. More than 17 per cent were afraid to seek health services.

Men who have sex with men and other sexual minorities also face humiliating and degrading abuses at the hands of fellow citizens. On 19 October, a Mangochi resident, from the eastern region of Malawi, was severely beaten up by a mob on suspicion that he is gay.

In this environment, how easy is it to convince a survivor of homophobic violence that it is okay to go to hospital to seek treatment?

Greater cooperation needed

Gift Trapence, executive director of CEDEP, said: “Now that the president has finally signed the Global Fund grant, our hope is that he will take the initiative to explain to the NGO Board and other state actors about the programme, and that we will soon see these actors cooperating, rather than trying to throw spanners in the works, in ensuring that we achieve an HIV-free generation.”

Writing in Malawi’s Weekend Nation on 24 October 2015, Trapence said: “The government has accepted that HIV cannot be overcome in the absence of interventions targeting sexual minorities and has decided to do something about it. As NGOs, our role is simply to complement government’s efforts.”

CEDEP and CHRR work with networks of peer educators in communities across Malawi to document human rights abuses suffered by sexual minorities in Malawi. Between June 2013 and March 2014 CHRR and the CEDEP documented and verified 76 cases of violations of the human rights of sexual minorities in four districts. These included police beatings and humiliation, arbitrary arrest and denial of health services.

Both CEDEP and CHRR believe that the use of evidence-based reporting on violations of sexual minorities’ rights in Malawi is the best way to influence domestic and international policymaking, to increase respect for the rights of all.

Read about Paradise or Persecution – a campaign launched by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance to raise awareness about countries who criminalise same sex relationships.

Please sign the petition and help advocate for the rights of sexual minorities.