Malawi Man Arrested for Gay Rights Posters

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday February 3, 2010

In the African nation Malawi, sexual contact between consenting adults of the same gender is illegal--and even non-sexual conduct can bring charges grounded in the country's "decency laws."

Such was the case when two men, 26-year-old Steven Monjeza and 20-year-old Tiwonge Chimbalanga, allegedly hosted a public celebration of their union as gay life partners: the pair were placed under arrest late last year and have been detained, awaiting trial. They have also reportedly faced the prospect of invasive medical examinations to determine whether they have been engaging in gay sex. If convicted, the couple could face up to 14 years in prison.

Their lawyer, Mauya Msuku, says that the arrest of the young men flies in the face of constitutional protections--but police have begun arresting individuals who may be associated with nascent Malawi human rights organizations working to ease legal and social pressure on gays, partly to prevent gay men from going underground. Closeted gay men and other MSMs--men who have sex with men--avoid HIV testing, and there are concerns that gays who are afraid to seek testing and treatment could contribute to the ongoing AIDS epidemic.

At least two groups working for GLBT rights have coalesced in Malawi, despite the legal risks. One is the Centre for the Development of People; another is Broad Coalition, which circulates printed matter in an attempt to educate people, but guards the identities of its members for their own protection, reported British online news source

Although the article did not say whether Peter Sawali was associated with either group, it did detail how Sawali, 21, was placed under arrest by police on suspicion of putting up posters urging, "Gay rights are human rights." The posters, according to the article, were "expertly and expensively printed," which led to authorities questioning whether Sawali might not have had "international sponsors" who provided them.

The arrest of Monjeza and Chimbalanga has drawn international attention, and prompted human rights and GLBT equality advocates to condemn Malawi's anti-gay policies.

Police spokesperson Dave Chingwalu told the press that authorities were working to identify and arrest "a chain of people" involved with the postering efforts, which are being prosecuted under laws against disturbance of the peace.

Though the case has aroused sympathy for the young couple, in Malawi public sentiment seems to be hardening against gays, according to a Feb. 3 article posted at Voice of America's Web site, in a Feb. 3 article that quoted Malawi journalist Watipaso Mzungu as saying, "Malawi has its own values and structures, which should be respected. So we don't necessarily expect MPs from Britain or anywhere else to dictate to Malawi on what they should do."

"Almost every religion is against homosexuality," added Mzungu, "so it's just a very small minority group that wants homosexuality to be passed or like to accept homosexuality in Malawi. But almost everybody is against homosexuality."

Mzungu described the attitudes of most people in Malawi regarding gays. "Just last week on Friday, I was in Mwanza, a certain district in the southern region again. I was talking to different people, including the traditional leaders, the common people. I was asking them if maybe they would like a homosexuality law to be passed in the constitution of Malawi. But they seem to be against that law," related the journalist. "They don't want Malawi to allow homosexuality."

The article noted that human rights advocates who had spoken out on behalf of Monjeza and Chimbalanga had also been allegedly taken into custody by police, in one case for the possession of "pornographic" materials related to sexual health. The article also noted that the Centre for the Development of People had come under pressure from the Malawi government, as well as various religious factions, including Muslims, Christians, and Hindus.

But Mzungu denied reports that supporters of the two young men had been targeted for arrest, saying, "The police spokesperson for the southern region in Malawi told me that it is true that the police went to the office of CEDEP, but they didn't arrest anybody apart from just impounding or confiscating some materials which were pornographic, but they didn't arrest anybody."

The journalist has also suggested that the repudiation of Malawi's anti-gay laws has only led to the possibility that laws against homosexuals will be made even more stringent. "On Friday, the members of parliament were meeting in Lilongwe where one of the members of parliament criticized the NGOs," said Mzungu, "most local and international NGOs, which are pushing the members of parliament to amend the constitution section which talks against homosexuality. It means that the members of parliament too are not happy with what these two gay people have done in Malawi."

As with Uganda, another African nation that has risked alienating aid funds-providing Western nations due to anti-gay laws, Malawi may face the loss of international financial assistance--but that prospect has not softened the country's stance against its gay citizens. An Associated Press article reported that 40% of the African nation's budget is derived from Western nations providing aid--but also said that Malawi's Information Minister, Leckford Mwanza Thoto, indicated that financial concerns notwithstanding, Malawi was not prepared to budge on the issue. "As government we cannot interfere in the court process," stated Thoto, adding, "We depend on our Western friends, yes, but we are a sovereign country."

Monjeza and Chimbalanga remain in jail. They are due in court Feb. 9.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.