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The debate about decriminalising homosexuality must be strategically taken to Malawian people. One cannot simply change the law on such a sensitive issue without first addressing attendant social and religious concerns

The heated debate on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) rights in Malawi has resurfaced, which is not surprising as one can’t simply legalize homosexuality and then expect a nation to conform. On November 5 the Malawian government suspended all laws that criminalised homosexuality. Ralph Kasambara, Attorney General and Justice Minister, ordered police to not arrest LGBT individuals until parliament reviewed the laws, then backtracked three days later after criticism from Malawian civil society groups. Attempts to legislate change in support of LGBT rights without engaging the population are simply are not popular or sustainable. Greater efforts are needed to assess and address the social environment in Malawi which is complicating the sustainable decriminalization of anti-gay laws.


Like in much of Africa, Malawi’s leaders argue that homosexuality is alien to its cultural, traditional and religious values. The Malawi Council of Churches (MCC) and Christian conservatives are at the forefront of the country’s anti-gay sentiments, and Christianity is central to Malawian history and society. The famous Scottish explorer David Livingstone is credited for introducing the religion to Malawi as he paved the way for colonial expansion. By the end of the 1900s, there were several Christian missions across the Lake Nyasa region. Today Malawi is 83 percent Christian and 13 percent Muslim; the remaining 1.9 percent, follow other beliefs, including indigenous religions. Both Islam and Christianity traditionally reject homosexuality.

Malawi identifies itself as a Christian nation and with no religious conflict. Citizens proudly see themselves as ‘peaceful’ and ‘non-violent’. However, these identities are at times at odds with attitudes towards LGBT individuals. Although Malawi has fewer reported violent crimes against the LGBT community than countries like Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Cameroon, and Nigeria, Malawians typically stop short of violence towards LGBT individuals. Malawi is mostly a socially conservative country that is intolerant to a homosexual lifestyle. Being a homosexual in Malawi comes with a hefty sentence of between 5-14 years in jail, with hard labour. Two Malawian men, Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, received this harsh sentence after holding a traditional marriage ceremony as recently as 2010. But the late President Bingu wa Mutharika pardoned them following intense international pressure. Homophobic sentiments in Malawi are due to the dominance of the Christianity.

Homophobic attitudes in Malawi derive from the teachings in the country’s largely conservative Christian churches; therefore, any attempts to redress anti-gay legislation need to involve the church. The dominance of the Christianity and Judeo-Christian conservative values in Malawi makes it difficult to address homosexuality simply as a legal issue. Albeit being an independent, secular state, the Malawian state willingly operates under conservative colonial Christian ideologies: in practice, the state and church are not always separate. Public officials and private citizens often refer to themselves first and foremost as Christian and to the nation as “God fearing”. Religious culture is therefore inextricably intertwined with traditional western Judeo-Christian attitudes towards homosexuality and Malawi’s legal framework.

Arguments against homosexuality are less likely to engage legal obligations of the state and more likely to be presented as Biblical, moral arguments. The moral guide used in Malawian law stems from homophobic Western sentiments that were legislated by its former colonial governments and sustained by President Kamuzu Banda. Contemporary Malawian and Western Christian evangelicals also continue to influence legislation. Western evangelicals in particular are known to be powerful anti-gay legislation lobbyists in Africa. There is a need to engage Malawi’s Christian leaders and the MCC at religious levels – fight the Bible with the Bible. Even though objections to homosexuality are based on Biblical interpretations, the Bible is ambiguous about homosexuality and gay marriage.

Engaging the church community religiously in support of legislation against inequality can work and has worked. Malawian churches proactively supported democracy and human rights during the transition from dictatorial rule. It was a pastoral letter that helped galvanize the public to support Chakufwa Chihana, force Kamuzu Banda’s resignation and usher in democracy. However, the church community is largely unwilling to engage in the same ideals over the LGBT debate. Many Malawian churches are against a law that decriminalizes homosexuality, even if the current law suppresses sexual minorities. Religious justifications are, for the most part, used to repress Malawian LGBT citizens instead of liberate them.

Incidentally, similar Christian ideologies were used to justify the oppression of Black Africans. Africans were regarded as heathens because of the way they danced, dressed, or copulated — if the popular anecdotes state that the term "missionary position" originates from Christian missionaries’ teachings that this position was the appropriate way to engage in sexual intercourse is to be believed—and were deemed ‘ungodly’. These religious sentiments often influenced colonial laws towards Africans. Many traditional dances were banned by colonialists who deemed them as inappropriate and unchristian. Similarly, traditional marriages (non-Christian) or polygamous ones were not recognized as legitimate.

This repression gave rise to Malawi’s Black liberation theology and movements, which was spearheaded by the country’s national hero Reverend John Chilembwe. The theology adapted colonial Christian ideology and made it relevant to the African colonial experience. It used the liberating and inclusive tenets of the Bible to liberate African Malawians from oppressive social hierarchies. Conservative Christian Malawians seem to have well forgotten this in the LGBT debate. Malawi’s debate over LGBT rights should engage Biblical interpretations about homosexuality, leaders in religious theology. This should involve faith-based civic society and NGOs that support dialogue on Biblical teachings. Consistent with Chilembwe’s ideologies, Christianity in Malawi should be used to teach about justice, tolerance, equality and inclusivity. It should promote democracy and human rights for the whole society.


Another common claim is that homosexuality is foreign, un-African and not a part of Malawian traditional culture. Homosexuality, some argue, is Western and its acceptance is a condition for development aid. However, historical data indicates that homosexuality did occur in pre-colonial Africa in countries like Benin, Congo, Burkina Faso and South Africa. A large portion of ethnic groups that settled in Malawi migrated from these areas. Pre-colonial attitudes to homosexuality were either negative (since it was not widely practiced) or neutral (it was seen as a normal gender ascription). Gender roles, as in the majority of Africa, were more fluid in pre-colonial than in contemporary Malawi. What foreigners brought to Africa was an increase in the rigidity of gender roles and homophobia. Similar to the altered attitudes towards African dress and dance, colonial practices influenced perceptions towards relationships by using religion. Attitudes towards African models of relationships such as polygamy, non-Christian traditional marriages and same partner relationships changed. Penal codes, such as those that criminalized homosexual relationships, preserved the changed attitudes.

In the post-colonial era, Malawi’s government did little to change these laws. Kamuzu Banda made efforts to change some of the unpopular tenets of colonialism but he largely continued oppressing Malawians to consolidate his own power. The routine suppression of groups like LGBT or Jehovah’s Witness’ was common in Banda’s autocratic Malawi. After the Banda era, most Malawians knew LGBT individuals could be found in the country but did not discuss the issue publicly. For example, the presence of ‘beach boy’ culture— young males who work on the beach as tour guides or organizers of entertainment that also engage in homosexual sex with tourists —on Malawian beaches supports the tourism industry but is rarely discussed by tourism or health authorities. Rather than deny its existence or focus on blaming foreigners, Malawians should be conscious of their own historical reality with LGBT community. This relationship is hard to define because foreign governments use the lifting of anti-gay legislation as a condition for aid. Doing so presents homosexuality as foreign and blames the LGBT community for funding and fiscal limitations. It also diminishes support for President Joyce Banda who is often accused of being too heavily influenced by foreigners because she supports LGBT rights as human rights.


Equally important is the legal process: Malawians seem to desire upholding the law, albeit some motivated by homophobia. If Malawian homosexuality legislation is changed, citizens want it done legally and constitutionally. Malawians already saw their constitution flouted during former President Mutharika’s second term. The country had become increasingly dictatorial because Mutharika enacted new laws that limited freedom and civil rights. When Mutharika suddenly died in early 2012, democracy was threatened during an attempted constitutional coup: staunch Mutharika supporters made efforts to circumventing the constitution. Malawians celebrated when the constitution was upheld and Joyce Banda became president in what was considered a victory for constitutional process.

Consequently, there is general low tolerance in Malawi for those that do not follow legal processes and protocol. Part of the new president’s agenda is to realize human rights for all Malawians. When Malawians heard that the Banda administration suspended anti-gay laws without due process there was resistance. Even those who would otherwise have supported decriminalizing homosexuality sided with the constitution. The Malawi Law Society (MLS) stood alongside the MCC in the debate due to their commitment to upholding the constitution. They argued against the suspension on legal grounds, stating that ministers had no right to freely suspend laws and that doing so set a dangerous precedent.

Although international human rights groups tout the suspension as a victory for human rights and LGBT rights, supporting the undemocratic methods that brought it about contradicts the democratic process. This only heightens anti-gay sentiments and weakens credibility. Realizing Malawian LGBT rights won’t be popular or possible if due legal process is circumvented. The fight and argument needs to be tackled in parliament with input from those who have support and backing from constituents. This means the debate has to be strategically taken to Malawian people and one cannot simply decriminalize homosexuality before changing social attitudes Social and religious concerns must be addressed with a public that also needs to be sensitized on the issues of concern. Additionally, there should be an introspective look at Malawi’s religious and pre-colonial history. Further, Malawians should be familiarized with democracy and the role of government – this was never adequately done during the transition to multi-party rule and former President Muluzi’s rule.

Government and civil society need to guide the debate. The government needs to clearly define what they want to achieve for the country by decriminalizing homosexuality and communicate that the state is mandated to protect all citizens, not just straight ones. Social marketing campaigns and public service announcements that aim to change attitudes towards homosexuality and the LGBT community should be developed. Some Malawians still debate over the differences between calls to ‘decriminalize homosexuality’ versus calls to ‘legalize gay marriage’ and a sizeable number believe is it the same issue. Biased media reporting on the issue is common. Success and sustainable change can only come from and be measured by a change in public perceptions as well as the law.

Addressing the religious and social attitudes, as well as legal concerns, is central to Malawi’s LGBT debate. Although homosexuality is a contentious issue in the county, part of the population does support the community. Many—liberal Christians, heterosexuals, those interested social justice for all, and other Malawians—support its decriminalization. Tiwonge Chimbalanga was often sympathetically referred to as ‘Aunt Tiwo’. The threat of undermining the constitution is too real for Malawi so supporting change that circumvents the law is bound to backfire. LGBT rights activists need to be more strategic and focus on protecting all rights for all citizens.


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* Sitinga Kachipande is a Pan-African Studies student and blogger, currently a research and communication intern at TransAfrica. Views expressed are her own.


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