Making waves: Malawi revives debate on gay rights

Displaying the rainbow flag of gay rights activistsDisplaying the rainbow flag of gay rights activists: Despite vocal opposition in a number of African countries, acceptance is slowly gaining ground.
Photograph: See-ming Lee

By selling the presidential jet and getting rid of 60 limousines driven by high-ranking officials, Joyce Banda, Malawi’s new president, is making waves. But even before trimming the fat from the state budget, Ms. Banda made headlines when she announced her intention to repeal the country’s anti-gay law shortly after her April swearing-in. If she has her way, Malawi would be one of the rare African countries to do so.

Two-thirds of African countries have laws that criminalize consensual same-sex acts, according to Cary Alan Johnson, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), a New York-based gay advocacy group. In most countries, same-sex acts between men, known as sodomy, are punishable by harsh prison sentences. Many of these laws date back to the colonial period, in particular in countries that were under British rule.

“You cannot stop the tide,” says Mr. Johnson. “The end of stigma, discrimination and criminalization of homosexuality in Africa is only a matter of time. Like minority and disabled rights, they will move forward. This does not mean there will not be a push back. And that is what we are experiencing right now.”


The United Nations and some Western nations are urging African governments to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) rights. But recent decisions by the US and UK to tie those rights to foreign funding has had unintended consequences on the continent.

In reaction, homophobia is now on the rise in Africa, and much of it is state-generated. Several African leaders have instructed law makers to stiffen laws against same-sex acts and same-sex marriage. 

Uganda has revived a controversial bill to introduce the death penalty for consensual same-sex acts. According to local media, hate crimes have increased against gay persons. An LGBT workshop was raided recently in the capital, Kampala, where a well-known advocate was arrested, forcing her to flee the country.

Nigeria in the meantime has passed a bill that punishes same-sex unions with 14 years in prison. The bill also punishes those who “aid and abet” such unions with 10 years imprisonment. Foreigners without diplomatic protection and humanitarian workers could also be prosecuted under this new bill. It is currently on President Goodluck Jonathan’s desk, waiting to be signed into law.

Liberia’s president and Noble Peace prize winner, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, has defended two new bills in her country that would hand down much tougher sentences for “voluntary sodomy,” which is now a misdemeanour.

Aid condition

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has hinted to Commonwealth leaders that future aid from his country would be contingent on recognition of gay rights. Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama issued a memorandum last December instructing US agencies abroad to use aid money to help defend LGBT rights and protect asylum seekers.

Tying overseas aid to gay rights seems to have not only African leaders up in arms, but also African religious leaders.

The Council of African Apostles (CAA), an annual gathering of African Christian evangelicals, issued a statement in March calling on the US and UK to withdraw their statements tying aid to the legislation of gay rights. The CAA said that aid in whatever form should not be tied to morals, principles and/or religious beliefs.

The CAA declared that “we find it morally irresponsible of Western powers to attach the adoption of ‘gay rights’ to development support. Such positions affirm the long-held beliefs that the West does not relate with Africa on a basis of equality and also that such pronouncements violate the Paris Principles on Development support.” (The Paris Declaration or Principles for Aid Effectiveness, endorsed in 2005, was meant as a blueprint for an ideal aid relationship between donor and recipient countries, in which developing countries are allowed to formulate their own policies and strategies.)

Not a government priority

For most African governments, protecting and promoting the rights of the LGBT community is not a national priority. Their position was made clear in March, when some Arab and African countries at the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council walked out on a debate about violence against LGBT persons. The panel was organized by South Africa, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2007.

Nigeria left the room after denying that any of its citizens have been subject to violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Ambassador Fode Seck of Senegal, as leader of the Africa group at the council, refuted the notion that gay rights are part of global human rights: “We categorically reject all attempts to hijack the international human rights system by imposing social concepts or norms, in particular certain behaviours, that have no legal grounds in the human rights debate. Such an initiative would be perceived as a flagrant disrespect for the universality of human rights.”

Historic resolution

An historic resolution passed in June 2011 at the council made gay rights a universal human right. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has received a lot of criticism from some African leaders for standing behind the cause.

In his address to the Human Rights Council in December 2011, Mr. Ban said he understood the topic of sexual orientation was a sensitive one. “Like many of my generation,” he said, “I did not grow up talking about these issues. But I learned to speak out because lives are at stake. And because it is our duty under the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to protect the rights of everyone, everywhere.”

The UN’s first report on conditions facing LGBT people around the world came out that same month. The report, prepared by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, showed incidents of targeted and systematic patterns of violence.

According to Navi Pillay, the human rights commissioner, such incidents constitute a grave human rights challenge that the council has a duty to address. “As always, people are entitled to their opinion,” she said. “They are free to disapprove of same-sex relationships, for example … [and] they have an absolute right to believe and follow in their own lives whatever religious teachings they choose. But that is as far as it goes. The balance between tradition and culture on the one hand and universal human rights on the other must be struck in favour of human rights.”

For Mr. Johnson of the IGLHRC, the glass is half full in regards to the advancement of LGBT rights in Africa. He points to South Africa’s leadership in LGBT rights. Malawi has now followed suit. Mauritius has also decriminalized consensual same-sex acts, while Mozambique has softened its law on sodomy if the act is consensual. “I think things are changing,” says Mr. Johnson. “A few years ago, Africa was a monolithic bloc [against LGBT rights] and now it’s starting to crack.”

—Africa Renewal online