The president of Malawi has proposed popular votes on same-sex marriage and on abortion, but no concrete steps toward such referendums have yet been announced.
President Arthur Peter Mutharika made the comments Sept. 1 during a “Talk to the President” program on publicly funded Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC TV).
His remarks came two months after the online newspaper Malawi24 reported that Mutharika and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had been ready as early as 2011 to repeal Malawi’s law against homosexual activity. The newspaper’s reporter said he had seen confidential reports from a secret meeting in 2011 at which Mutharika told then U.S. Ambassador Peter Bodde that the DPP government was willing to make homosexuality legal.
Mutharika was justice minister at the time. The reported discussion came after the arrest of an LGBTI couple, Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steve Monjeza, who held a traditional engagement ceremony in late 2009. They were convicted of unnatural acts and gross indecency, received the maximum sentence of 14 years in prison, but were pardoned in 2010 by then President Bingu wa Mutharika, the current president’s brother.
Malawi’s anti-homosexuality law is still on the books, but Secretary for Justice and Solicitor General Janet Chikaya-Banda announced last year that the country is no longer arresting people for same-sex acts.
Under that law, sexual intimacy between men is punishable by up to 14 years in prison; for women, the maximum punishment is five years. But the constitutionality of those laws is currently in question. Human rights activists argue that the laws violate Malawi’s constitutional protections for citizens regardless of their sex, race, tribe or religion.
The High Court is focused on a review of the case of three men — Amon Champyuni, Mathews Bello and Musa Chiwisi — who were convicted in 2011 and are serving sentences ranging from 10 to 14 years for practicing homosexuality.
Regarding same-sex marriage, President Mutharika says his approach to the issue is consistent with the DPP policy of not imposing decisions on Malawians on contentious issues related to their culture, morals and human rights.
But many advocates say that human rights should be a fundamental governmental guarantee, not an issue that is left to the whims of voters.
Gift Trapence, executive director of the LGBTI-friendly Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP) said he was surprised at the president’s statement and called on him to defend human rights and dignity for all, Malawi’s The Nation reported. Mwiza Nkhata, associate professor of law at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College, called Mutharika’s referendum proposal “absurd.”
Gift Trapence urged instead an attack on anti-LGBTI prejudice, discrimination hate crimes and the anti-gay social stigma that boosts Aids by restricting LGBTI people’s access the health care.
In Malawi, Trapence said, gays are being “harassed, threatened and even physically assaulted simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” the Nyasa Times reported. There is “good evidence that the HIV epidemic hits harder where anti-gay laws and prejudice exist. Voices of reason and goodwill must speak out against this hatred and irrationality.”
This article was revised on Sept. 16, 2015, to correct the title of Janet Chikaya-Banda, solicitor general and secretary for justice. The post of minister of justice is held by Samuel Tembenu.
- Referendum for Same-Sex Affairs in Malawi (Sept. 2, 2015, Nyasa Times)
- APM maintains stand of same-sex relations (Sept. 3, 2015, The Nation)
- ‘Malawi is Ready to Legalise Homosexuality’ — Mutharika (July 4, 2015, Malawi24)
- It’s official: No more Malawi arrests under anti-gay laws (July 2014, 76crimes.com)