- Category: WEEKEND INVESTIGATES
- Written by Bright Mhango
They want the law and society to recognise them as normal people like anybody else. But why havenâ€™t homosexuals in Malawi taken up the fight to claim their rights? If they donâ€™t fight for themselves, who do they believe will do this for them? Using the experiences he has gone through in writing stories on homosexuality, Bright Mhango raises these and other questions in this concluding article in the series on homosexuality in Malawi.Â Â
When I wanted to speak to a homosexual some weeks ago, I nearly gave up the assignment because they seemed scared, naughty and hard to get. I literally had to knock on their doors and beg for interviews. I even did a stakeout at a salon popular with gays.
I contacted lesbians too; one ignored my emails, the other took 10 minutes of airtime to convince, a drive to a rendezvous and then chickened out at the last minute. The second lesbian actually demanded payment for the interview.
Nile Banda, who I featured here two weeks ago, also asked if there would be any â€˜compensation.â€™
Now, that was enough to make anyone angry. Most of the people in the newsroom I belong to are straight; writing about gays is great service to gays and quite some disservice to the authors.
Since I accepted the assignment on gays, some people have labelled me gay, some think I have been paid while others believe I am just weird.
So, why should my bosses and I pay gays to tell their stories and fight for their rights?
In Uganda, Parliament discussed the issue of whether gays should be hanged. But gays in that country organised marches while in tranquil Malawi, they are holed up in their comfort zones.
Who do they expect to fight their war?
Most Malawians do not know gays in person. To most people, gays are fakers under the influence of Western ideals. Sometimes it takes meeting a person to believe that they exist and this is an element Malawian gays may be missing.
At a recent media training workshop on sexual minorities in Liwonde, the question of Malawian gays being idle was also floated.
Gift Trapence, executive director of the Centre for Development of People (Cedep), defended Malawian gays, saying they do not have much choice.
â€œMost of them [gays] are dependent on parents and risk being disowned if they can be seen coming out, but there is going to be a march soon,â€ said Trapence.
Chancellor College lecturer Dr Jesse Kabwila-Kapasula, who has conducted research on gays in Malawi, despite agreeing with Trapence that there are stigma-related risks, wondered why gays should come out at all.
â€œLetâ€™s not cut and paste methods of fighting this struggle. Letâ€™s not be Euro-centric. Why should gays come out, which heterosexual came out?â€ wondered Kabwila-Kapasula.
I thought Kapasulaâ€™s response was powerful. I asked Fortune Banduka, a gay I featured here over three weeks ago, when he would reveal his sexual orientation, in his church for example, he answered along the same line.Â
No one declares that they are straight and yet everyone expects gays to come out. After all, the last time Fortune told his church that he was gay, he was almost instantly declared persona non grata.
Policy and law
Minister of Gender Anita Kalinde got on a podium the other day and declared that she does not like homosexuality. Now, that is a very scary development because the issue of gays is a gender issue. Some gays do not choose to be gay, they are gay by birth.
I can mention 10 countries without taking a break where Kalindeâ€™s statements would have had her fired. A nurse in Britain was sacked for offering to pray for patients.
The argument is that we all have our personal philosophies, but the moment we bring them out when we hold a certain position that demands neutrality, then we have a problem.
Kabwila-Kapasula also faulted Kalinde, saying her statements make her unfit to be a minister responsible for gender.
â€œWhether we like it or not, we need to speak from research and research shows without a shadow of doubt that we have gays and lesbians among us,â€ she said.
Kabwila-Kapasula blamed what she called posturing, a trick where politicians say things to please the audience listening to them at that time.
Â I am not familiar with posturing as a term, but it sure is all over. President Joyce Banda talked about decriminalising homosexuality when donors were listening but nothing has happened since.
Some say the issue should be subjected to a referendum. If that happened, it would almost be 100 percent against gays considering the homophobia the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) and Cedep touched on in a recent joint press release on the issue.
â€œIssues of respect, promotion and protection of human rights can never be determined by the ballot. Human rights are universal and can never be applied selectively as enshrined in our Republican Constitution (Section 20) and international human rights instruments to which Malawi is party,â€ read part of the statement, signed by Trapence and CHRR executive director Undule Mwakasungula.
The logic is simple; if the issue of African Americans learning together with Caucasians was put to a vote in America, would the racist policy have gone?
The moral of the story is that straight people being in the majority should not mean denial of freedoms for those we do not accept, let alone justification for denying their existence.
A researcher at John Hopkins Research Project, who did not want to be identified, bemoaned the lack of HIV policies on sexual minorities.Â She said Malawi receives donor funding with conditions to include gays, but the country never fulfils the promise.
The researcher said men who have sex with men need recognition because their sex is the most risky in terms of transmitting HIV (19 times riskier that hetero-sex).
Instead, gays have no information on HIV and sexually transmitted infections. She said some gays think gay sex is safer because of the myth that it is women who are carriers of diseases.
According to the researcher, gays have a lot of casual sex and have short-term relationships because they are afraid of being found out by the homophobic population.
Some have girlfriends and others play Casanovas so that their real sexual orientation can be masked.
The result is high prevalence of HIV among gays (21 percent as of 2008). The research also showed that many gays have sex with multiple partners.
This means gays may be a breeding ground for HIV and Malawi may be concentrating its energies in dealing with HIV in the wrong places by denying that gays exist in the country.
Kabwila-Kapasula said: â€œHIV,Â Aids levels in Malawi are like a leaking bucket, we have to close all the holes if we are to fight itâ€¦.â€
The law in Malawi is, according to one legal expert, copied â€˜almost word for wordâ€™ from English law and despite Malawi being a secular state, the law is highly rooted in religion.
Lawyer Chrispine Sibande called for the realisation of sexual health and rights.
He said Malawian law should put Section 11(2) (c) of the Constitution into practice.
The law says Malawi should borrow from international trends where possible.
Sibande recommended reforming the law, observance of rights and responsibilities and acceptance of diversity as the panacea.
â€œHomosexuals are human beings and human rights by definition imply the rights a person has simply because he or she is a human being.
â€œThese human rights are by their very nature inalienable, implying that a person cannot lose these rights any more than when a person can cease being human; indivisible, implying that you cannot be denied a right because it is less important than another right; and are inherent in a human being,â€ said Sibande.
Chancellor College sociologist, Dr Charles Chilimampunga, also took a swipe at homophobia, saying it not only infringes on rights, but also fuels HIV.
Said Chilimampunga: â€œChange agents such as the media, traditional and religious leaders, politicians, teachers and parents should play their role in ensuring that society accepts that there are lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBT) in Malawi and in ensuring that society should treat LGBT like other members of society.â€
Benson Nkhoma Somba of Galaxy Media Consultants made an assessment of Malawian media on the issue and found that the media have generally been negative towards gays, writing reactive stories and never stopping to hear from the gays themselves.
â€œThe media, just like everyone else, has been emotional when handling issues of sexual minority rights. The media took sides. The media has been reactive,â€ said Nkhoma Somba.