Malawi's Democracy Continues to Unravel

Malawi violence

Isaac Kambwiri injured by police during demonstrations.

Only three months after 18 were killed during peaceful protests in Malawi, five activists were arrested last week. They were holding a peaceful demonstration calling on President wa Mutharika to have a referendum for early elections, the resignation of Police Inspector General Peter Mukhita, and an investigation into his alleged involvement in the death of student activist Robert Chasowa.

Though Malawi rarely receives significant international press coverage for human rights abuses, or much other news for that matter, the government in Malawi has been systematically restricting human rights and taking violent action to suppress criticism.

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A Perverse Equality in Malawi and Other Gay Rights News

Uganda's proposed "Anti-Homosexuality Bill" received support from Christian groups © Demotix/Edward Echwalu

Last year, a couple was imprisoned for several months in Malawi following a traditional engagement ceremony based on a law criminalizing homosexuality. Similar laws exist in about 2/3 of African Union member nations. They were eventually pardoned by President Mutharika following loud international condemnation. Apparently, however, this incident served to bring to light a gap in Malawi’s laws members of Parliament decided to address.

Early last month, a bill was passed in Malawi’s parliament criminalizing homosexuality between women. Evidently there was concern the prior law could be construed to only apply to men, and since Malawi is clearly dedicated to making all things equal, decided it was necessary consenting adult women sharing their love also deserved the right to go to prison. As far as I know, the bill has yet to be signed into law by President Mutharika.

In more positive news this week, a court in Uganda decided publishing the names of LGBT people is completely uncool. While a pending law  allowing for punishment by the death penalty for engaging in homosexuality lingers in limbo, an enterprising tabloid decided putting names and pictures in papers with the words “hang them” was an appropriate vigilante maneuver.  

So boo to Malawi legislators and three cheers to the Ugandan high court as LGBT individuals struggle to be treated with respect, dignity and human rights in Africa.

Malawi Couple Pardoned by President

Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza departing court May 20, 2010.

It was a lovely and welcome surprise this morning to learn that President Mutharika pardoned Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga. This pardon came only because you as activists stood in solidarity with Steven and Tiwonge and demanded their rights to equality under the law. We joined the voice of the international community demanding these individuals not be persecuted because of their love.

But we are asking you not to rest on your laurels. There is still much work to be done. Acts of homophobia occur globally. Amnesty USA is taking action this June during Pride month to call attention to acts of discrimination, hindering progress towards equal rights for all.

Malawi will remain a featured case for this campaign. President Mutharika bowed to international pressure. Many governments condemned the arrest, prosecution and harsh sentencing of this couple. The United States government issued a strong statement, South African President Zuma roundly denounced their treatment, governments threatened to withdraw aid, and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon met with President Mutharika right before the announcement of the pardon.

In his pardoning statement, President Mutharika clearly showed no acceptance, understanding or appreciation of gay rights.

“These boys committed a crime against our culture, our religion and our laws … I have done this on humanitarian grounds but this does not mean that I support this.”

It is clear that discrimination and persecution will continue in Malawi and so we call for the repeal of the law allowing the arrest and imprisonment of gay people, a law that contravenes Malawi’s constitution and international treaties. Look for this action to be live when we launch our Pride campaign June 4th.

Gay Malawian Couple Sentenced to 14 Years in Prison

gay flagToday a gay couple in Malawi was sentenced to serve the maximum possible sentence of 14 years in prison. They were convicted on May 18th of unnatural acts and gross indecency. Personally, I think jailing people for expressing their love is both unnatural and indecent.

In December, Steven and Tiwonge celebrated their love with a traditional engagement ceremony at the hotel where Tiwonge worked. The publicity generated by the ceremony alerted authorities, leading to their arrest. They knew the risk they took, but are so dedicated to each other and their relationship, they proceeded anyway with their public declaration of love. Because of that commitment and desire to spend their lives together in a loving relationship, they are now sentenced to serve prison time. Tiwonge purportedly released the following statement prior to the sentencing:

“I love Steven so much. If people or the world cannot give me the chance and freedom to continue living with him as my lover, then I am better off to die here in prison. Freedom without him is useless and meaningless.”

At the sentencing, the judge stated he was giving the maximum sentence in order to scare the public and inhibit other gay people from following this “horrendous example.” Amnesty International considers Steven and Tiwonge to be Prisoners of Conscience and declared the sentence to be an “outrage.” The men have three weeks to file an appeal and Amnesty will continue to campaign vigorously on behalf of these two men. We will call upon the Appeals Court to overturn their conviction and release them unconditionally. Check back soon as an action will be live on this case in the next few days. In the meantime, please go here to get information about how you can urge the US Congress to take action on behalf of Steven and Tiwonge.

Support Congressional Resolution Demanding Release of Malawian Gay Couple!

Last week, Congressman Kirk (R-IL) and Congresswoman Baldwin (D-WI) introduced a Resolution before the US House Foreign Affairs Committee calling on the Malawi government to release Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, a gay couple imprisoned since December. They were arrested following an engagement ceremony and have been denied bail by the court. The Resolution calls for their release on humanitarian grounds and bring Malawi into compliance with international law treaties to which it is a party. Amnesty International has declared Tiwonge and Monjeza to be Prisoners of Conscience and are also urging their immediate release.

Contact your Representatives and Senators and urge them to co-sponsor this Resolution. We might not always like how we wield it, but the US still has much power and sway in this world, and this strong statement can continue to put pressure on the Malawi government to treat its citizens with the equality it has promised.

Find your Representative (top left corner of Home page)
Find your Senator (top right corner of Home page)
Contact Representative Baldwin and Representative Kirk’s offices and tell them you support this Resolution. (1.202.225.2906 and 1.202.225.4835)

Long Awaited Day in Court for Gay Couple in Malawi

flagA court date has been set for the trial of Malawi nationals Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza. The charge? Engaging in “unnatural practices between males and gross public indecency,” punishable by up to 14 years in prison. The evidence? A traditional engagement ceremony between the two men held December 27th, 2009. After determining there was enough evidence to hold the men for trial, the date is set for May 18th. In the meantime, both Monjeza and Chimbalanga are confined in inadequate prison conditions. Mr. Monjeza is ill, and while receiving some medical treatment, his condition is no doubt made worse by the conditions of his imprisonment.

The announcement came on the heels of the President of Malawi Bingu wa Mutharika’s marriage to his second wife. President wa Mutharika enjoys the liberty to marry while Mr. Chimbalanga and Mr. Monjeza are subject to public humiliation and shunning for their desire to join lives. President wa Mutharika, who had previously remained relatively quiet on the matter, purportedly recently denounced the two men describing homosexuality as “foreign” and “un-African”. No doubt, such a declamation taints the prospect for a fair trial for these two men and further emphasizes the need for local and international pressure to demonstrate the global call for LGBT rights.

It is time Malawi take up the charge of progressive democratic policy making and release these two men. Not only does the Chimbalanga-Mojeza trial provide a test case for LGBT rights, but given Malawi’s current role as African Union Chair, a favorable decision for the defendants can serve as a model for LGBT rights specifically and human rights advocacy generally in Africa.

The demand and culture for human rights always needs a seed. Some case or event which highlights the dramatic needs for more robust human rights laws and awareness in a country. No matter the country, no matter the right, it is an occasion for all people who believe in the rights and freedoms of every individual to have their voice heard. The call for LGBT rights goes beyond individual liberty. It also addresses public health concerns surrounding HIV/AIDS in Africa. The lack of openness on homosexuality produces a chilling effect on efforts to combat HIV/AIDS regionally.

Help us stand up and speak out against the trial of Steven and Tiwonge, and remind the Malawian government that criminalization of homosexuality and sexual identity is banned under many of the treaties Malawi has ratified, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. Check back at Amnesty USA’s web site after June 1st to take action on behalf of these men and others as we highlight this case as part of a larger Pride action. We also urge you to take part in a local PRIDE activity in June to stand in solidarity with these two men.

Southern Africa To Be One Country

Bono, South X' New Head of State

Bono, South Zamalawimbiqueothobabweibialand's new Head of State

I was very excited to read today that ten countries in southern Africa decided to join forces, eliminate borders and become one country. This will make it easier for many Westerners who already think the continent of Africa is just one country; or at least think all the countries are exactly the same and therefore propose the same “one size fits all” solutions over and over again to mostly Western created problems.

Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Botswana and Angola will now be called South Zamalawimbiqueothobabweibialand. Recognizing this will be a challenge to fit on business cards, government officials have declared its ok to just call this new nation South Africa, since before the union it was the only country most Westerners could reliably find on a map.

It was quite a struggle to decide how this new nation would be governed, and there were points where it became quite ugly when dos Santos and Mugabe descended into vicious name calling, as both men are accustomed to longevity as heads of their prior respective states.  In the end, after many rounds of rock/paper/scissors, it was concluded that Bono would lead this new nation forward because it was felt to be the best way to secure debt relief, HIV funding and better coverage in People/US/OK magazine.

For similar reasons; Madonna will be Minister of Education (sorry to all those people who can now expect to lose their homes so she can build more schools), Oprah will be named Cultural Minister (her new talk show will launch in 2012), Brangelina will be appointed co-Ministers of Internally Displaced Persons  (expect lots of fighting between them and Madonna over those displaced for Madonna’s new schools as well as the best photo opps with their adopted children) and Mariah Carey will be Minister of Agriculture (good luck on that starvation diet Mariah!)

One of the first acts of this new nation will be to set up a large lion preserve to promote the image that lions roam free in the streets throughout Africa. Also, media relations will assure that news coverage focuses predominantly on anything bad happening in the region with an emphasis on promoting negative stereotypes, while ignoring positive stories. In particular, media will assure that any stories about the many amazing Africans working to improve conditions within their new nation will continue to rarely be printed because pictures of sad children are considered the only way to get people to care and stories of Africans helping themselves will discourage other celebrities from traveling to region for photo opps and establishing charitable organizations in an attempt to seem less self-absorbed.

Within Amnesty USA, the Southern Africa Co-group welcomes this new nation because it means much less work for us. It was getting very tiresome to lobby ten different governments about human rights conditions. Now, we only have to pester Bono. Oh, and happy April Fool’s Day.

Standing Up for LGBT Rights in Malawi

Back in early January, we called for the unconditional release of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, two men who were arrested after having a traditional engagement ceremony in Malawi. They were charged with “unnatural practices between males and gross public indecency” and were reportedly beaten while in custody. In Malawi, homosexual acts can carry a maximum prison sentence of 14 years. And just yesterday, the BBC reported that there will be a full trial for the two men beginning in April. The men deny the charges and will soon have to begin calling defense witnesses.

This case serves as a sad reminder of the state of LGBT rights in much of Africa. In Uganda, the debate rages on over the Anti-Homosexuality Bill that was introduced in December 2009. In Kenya, anti-gay rallies have been held and attacks have been carried out against openly gay citizens. And in Malawi, religious leaders are responding to the trial by reaffirming their stance against homosexuality. In this climate of hate, those crying out for acceptance cannot be heard.

The trial of these men, purely on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation, is a gross violation of their rights to freedom of conscience, expression and privacy - Véronique Aubert, Amnesty International’s Deputy Africa Director

Help us stand up and speak out against the trial of Steven and Tiwonge, and remind the Malawian government that criminalization of homosexuality and sexual identity is banned under many of the treaties Malawi has ratified, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.

Rebecca Friedrichs contributed to this blog post.

All Malawians Should be Treated with Love

ADAM-022473-0005-C003049973-026548Malawi president Bingu wa Mutharika will purportedly participate in a traditional engagement ceremony on Valentine’s Day with the lovely woman he has been seen escorting of late. I wish him all the happiness in the world. But at the same time Mutharika looks forward to sharing his life with the person of his choice, two men remain jailed in Malawi because they tried to do the same.

At the end of December 2009, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga were arrested following their participation in a traditional engagement ceremony. They are currently on trial for “unnatural practices between males” and “gross public indecency.” They remain imprisoned after being denied bail, purportedly for their own safety, and face public ridicule when appearing in court. They have applied for relief to the Constitutional Court challenging the constitutionality of their arrest under Malawian law but have yet to receive a ruling.

Following the arrest of Monjeza and Chimbalanga, three things have happened. First, Malawi’s gay rights movement has become much more active. Second, Malawi has harshly cracked down on gay rights activists. Third, the international community has mobilized, demanding the release of these two men and the repeal of homosexuality as a crime in Malawi. I view two of these outcomes as very positive, and unfortunately, one of them not so much. The arrest of someone for putting up posters that read “Gay Rights are Human Rights” is not only harassment, but it is violative of freedom of expression guaranteed by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Malawi is a signatory.

Malawi is also pushing back against the international community, stating other nations and individuals have no right to dictate the laws in their country, raising fears Malawi will only entrench further on its anti-homosexuality stance in the face of this criticism. As a general rule, I appreciate the concept of sovereignty and that other States should stay out of the business of running a nation. However, when persons are discriminated against, their rights violated, their civil liberties trampled, their basic freedoms curtailed and their safety endangered purely because of who they are as individuals, it is the duty of all human beings to stand up and say that this is wrong.

President Mutharika looks to have a very busy year between settling into a new marriage and assuming the African Union chairmanship.  The increased visibility and prestige of chairing the African Union makes it incumbent upon Mutharika to set positive standards for all of the continent.  Monjeza and Chimbalanga return to court tomorrow as their case resumes. Stand up and do your duty as a global citizen and urge Malawi to treat all its citizens, gay and straight, president and average Joe, with love.

Real men are not afraid of women's empowerment!

As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon put it “Violence against women and girls will not be eradicated until all of us – men and boys- refuse to tolerate it”. Globally, men are taking a stand. Kenya’s Men for Gender Equality Now (MENGEN), a member of the Say NO – UNiTE to End Violence Against Women global coalition, stands out as an inspiring organization.  Since 2001, MENGEN has worked to involve men in the struggle against gender-based violence and gender-inequality. To date, the organization has reached thousands of men and women in 21 constituencies across Kenya, championing equality and rejecting violence against women.

During the 2009 global 16 Days of activism against gender violence campaign, MENGEN spearheaded the Men’s Traveling Conference, recruiting male role models across Kenya to oppose violence and to start MENGEN branches in their communities. MENGEN mobilized men and women to sign commitment forms pledging their allegiance to fight gender-based violence; despite meeting heavy resistance in some towns, several police offices and provincial administrators pledged their support.

Activists march against gender violence in Kigali, Rwanda.

Activists march against gender violence in Kigali, Rwanda.

On November 25th, the first day of the 16 Days campaign, Malawi Minister for Gender, Children and Community Development, Hon. Patricia Kaliati, launched the official inauguration of MENGEN in Malawi with a powerful statement, “Real Men are not afraid of women’s empowerment.”

Amnesty International USA could not agree more!

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