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Malawi President’s State of the Nation and Homosexuality

21 May 2012

A number of media reports have come out saying Malawi’s new president, Joyce Banda, will remove the country’s ban on homosexuality. The first article I saw was reported by BBC News, who treated the story as breaking news on Twitter:

Then, I saw a Malawian news agency run a similar story. These articles are based on remarks President Banda made during her State of the Nation Address Friday. In her address, she said:

In the 2012/2013 fiscal year, we will continue with the law reform programme and finalize review of the laws that I have just referred to. Some laws which were duly passed by this august House and were referred back to the Malawi Law Commission will be repealed, as a matter of urgency, and these include… the provisions regarding indecent practices and unnatural acts contained in sections 137A and 153 – 156 of the Penal Code…

(See full text of Banda’s address.)

Though President Banda never directly mentioned homosexuality, journalists assumed from her remarks that she was going to repeal the ban on homosexuality. The inference isn’t ridiculous — these sections of the penal code are popularly known as the “anti-gay law.” The full text of these sections from the penal code:

  • Section 137A: “Any female person who, whether in public or private, commits any act of gross indecency with another 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.”
  • Section 153: “Any person who (a) has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature; or (b) has carnal knowledge of an animal; or (c) permits a male person to have carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature, shall be guilty of a felony and shall be liable to imprisonment for fourteen years, with or without corporal punishment.”
  • Section 156: “Any male person who, whether in public or private, commits any act of gross indecency with another male person, or procures another male person to commit any act of gross indecency with him, or attempts to procure the commission of any such act by any male person with himself or with another male person, whether in public or private, shall be guilty of a felony and shall be liable to imprisonment for five years, with or without corporal punishment.”

It was not long after the BBC ran the headline that we saw a potential change in the story: Banda’s office was denying that they were going to repeal the ban on homosexuality. Below is a Tweet from Kate Forbes, Africa Producer for BBC News:

It seems President Banda’s office called Forbes to deny the report, but following that call, the President’s press office was unreachable. Forbes/BBC chose to stand by the original report:

There has been no retraction posted online nor any subsequent update to the published BBC story. There has yet to be a follow-up story that captures the contact from President Banda’s office.

I was surprised by the statement in the State of the Nation Address and judging from my reading of the since-released full text of the address, I find it hard not to make the same inference as journalists have. To what could Banda have been referring except laws targeting homosexual acts when she explicitly mentioned Penal Code Sections 137A, 153, 156? The fact that her office has since denied the claim that she would repeal the ban on homosexuality signals to me that the laws against homosexual acts will remain, despite what Banda said during the State of the Nation Address.

In the wake of Banda’s address and the reporting on the potential lifting of the ban on homosexuality, the Sunday Times headlined with an engagement ceremony of two lesbians (Redgner Mmangausi and Ruth Banda) in Malawi.

photo of front page of Daily Times on Sunday, May 20, 2012, taken by Frank Kumwenda, who owns rights to the photograph (shared with permission)

Online news agency Nyasa Times has since reported the engagement ceremony and relationship is a farce. Some Malawian analysts have suggested the story of Redgner Mmangausi and Ruth Banda was politically motivated, released just after the BBC article (even though the reported engagement ceremony occurred before Banda’s State of the Nation Address) to reduce President Banda’s popularity.

To give some background on the Malawian context, in December 2009, police arrested Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza at their engagement party on suspicion of committing sodomy, a colonial-era law that remains in effect. African and Western activists and diplomats called on Malawian officials to abandon the prosecution of Chimbalanga and Monjeza, but in May 2010, a court found both guilty of sodomy and sentenced each to fourteen years in prison. Eleven days later during an official visit from United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, then-President Bingu wa Mutharika pardoned Chimbalanga and Monjeza. However, it was not long thereafter that the president assented to a penal-code amendment criminalizing sex between women in late January 2011.

Malawian media has portrayed state officials as having negative attitudes toward homosexuality, particularly former President Bingu wa Mutharika, who referred to homosexuals as “worse than dogs.” There is still room for better understanding of how representative those negative views are of the general Malawian public. A 2011 study conducted by the Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP) and the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) aimed at gauging attitudes and perceptions of Malawians towards such sexual minorities as lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and Intersex (LGBTI). The Daily Times recently reported nearly 99.5% of survey respondents in the CEDEP/CHRR study expressed knowledge of sexual minorities in the country. Most had strong negative perceptions and attitudes towards homosexuality, but 30% of respondents agreed that LGBTI persons deserve protection from discrimination. The study itself has yet to be formally released, but haba na haba will report on any such release in the future. I have plans (with two colleagues) to launch a similar study in Malawi this summer, which is to say: watch this space!

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