Tough for gays in Malawi

06 November 2012 - 20:24 By Felix Mponda, Sapa-AFP
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Despite Malawi's move to suspend a law banning same-sex relationships, activists say winning a total repeal will be an "uphill battle" in a country where homosexuality is considered a sin.

"Malawi culture remains conservative," Billy Mayaya, a leading rights activist, told AFP just hours after President Joyce Banda's government announced the suspension of tough anti-gay laws, pending a parliamentary debate.

Despite their jubilation over the suspension, Mayaya and others are far from confident that a full repeal is in the cards. Until that happens gay Malawians still face the threat of up to 14 years in jail with hard labour.

According to Mayaya, a member of the Civic and Political Platform, it is "a foregone conclusion that Malawi's parliament would never repeal sodomy laws. It will be very difficult for parliament to do so."

He added: "This will be an uphill battle because of the conservative stance of the Malawi society which still considers homosexuality a sin."

A local newspaper poll found that around 96 percent of Malawians say the country should not allow gay relationships.

That status quo is strongly defended by the country's Protestant churches. "Malawi follows the rule of law because having a sexual orientation is not a sin, but practicing is sin," cleric Canaan Phiri of the Malawi Council of Churches told AFP. "Homosexuality is a sin."

Addressing engrained preconceptions will require plenty of leg work, says Gift Trapence, one of the country's leading gay campaigners.

"Malawi needs to remove all biases and prejudices against gays," he said.

"People don't have the right information about sexual minorities. We want the lawmakers to get the right information, for them to make independent decisions."

But how best to overcome those preconceptions has campaigners split.

Mayaya believes to win the fight rights groups need to change their strategy and "educate the masses about the need to repeal the laws for sexual minorities to enjoy their rights."

He also thinks that "gays themselves must come out in the open to explain their plight and not fight from the shadows."

Campaigner and researcher for gay issues, Jessie Kabwila, disagrees, believing that approach only provides fodder for opponents.

The issue must be "approached in a Malawian way and not the Western style of coming out as a gay," she told a recent debate.

Coming out into the open "gives advantage to opponents because there is a target for them to hit."

"Do we need really a poster on gay rights or a poster-person approach as a symbol of gays?" she asked.

While activists struggle to fashion a bottom-up approach, lobbying is squarely focused on winning rights from the top down.

Rights groups are hoping to win over the government and in particular Banda, who has voiced support for repealing the laws since taking over the presidency in April.

"We urge the government not to lose momentum on this basic human rights issue and to ensure the full repeal of these discriminatory and hate-filled laws," said Amnesty International's Noel Kututwa.

However, according to one official who asked not to be named, the debate over the anti-gay law will not take place when parliament convenes next week.

"Parliament will discuss 22 bills and the bill on the repeal of sodomy laws is not among them. The debate will not happen soon as this is not considered an issue of national interest," the official told AFP.

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