Homosexuality is little tolerated or accepted in much of Africa. South Africa legalized gay marriage in 2006, but incidence of hate crimes towards gay and lesbian persons are not uncommon. Uganda is currently contemplating a new law allowing the death penalty for those convicted of being gay. This criminalization of homosexuality occurs in many African countries, and Malawi is no exception. So when two men pledged their love and commitment to each other last month, they were promptly arrested.
On December 26th, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga held a traditional engagement ceremony in Blantyre’s poor township of Chirimba. Two days later, the men were arrested after the story was reported in local newspapers. The charges were “unnatural practices between males and gross public indecency.” They were reportedly beaten by police while in custody.
On January 4th the men appeared in court and were denied bail “for their own safety” and “in the interest of justice.” They are currently being held at Chichiri prison until their next scheduled court appearance on January 11th. Further, Malawian authorities have attempted to compel the men to submit to forcible medical examinations, falsely believing this will prove past sexual relations, in order to charge the men with sodomy.
Laws criminalizing homosexuality violate international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Malawi has ratified both these documents and has an obligation to abide by their precepts. Amnesty International considers individuals imprisoned solely for their private consensual sexual relationships as prisoners of conscience and calls for their immediate and unconditional release.
Expressions of love and commitment between consenting adults can never be unnatural nor violative of public decency. Tell Malawi to release these men immediately and that love is not a crime.
Waiting in line to vote. ©Amnesty International
As 2009 winds down, here’s a wrap up of the year’s highlights from the southern Africa region. From elections, to assassinations, to elections, to awards ,to elections, to boycotts, to elections, to what was all in all a fairly smooth year compared to what might have been, here are a few notes about human rights conditions in the 12 countries we monitor for Amnesty International USA.
Angola was supposed to hold presidential elections this year but didn’t. Current (and for the last 30 years) president, dos Santos, said constitutional reform must come first and this will take another two years. Constitutional reform=good. Using it as an excuse to delay democratic elections=bad.
Forced evictions continued in 2009 in Angola. Amnesty International continues to call for an end to illegal evictions and for just compensation for forcibly displaced persons in Angola.
On a positive note, Prisoner of Conscience Fernando Lelo was released this year. Lelo is a journalist imprisoned for criticizing above noted president. However, those who were tried and convicted with him remain incarcerated. Lelo directly credited Amnesty activists for their efforts on his behalf. Pat yourselves on the back for a job well done!
Botswana held elections this year. Khama was elected to a new term, after finishing out the term of his predecessor. Major concerns in Botswana continue to be media restrictions, repression of labor unions, displacement of indigenous persons and high HIV infection rates. But Khama does his fair share of criticizing regional leaders and tweaking the nose of Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe. He mailed a congratulatory letter to the ladies of Women of Zimbabwe Arise following their win of the RFK Human Rights Award this year.
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Madonna with her son in Malawi last March (c) AMOS GUMULIRA/AFP/Getty Images
Madonna’s appeal to a Malawi court regarding her adoption of a little girl was heard this week. Personally, I could care less if Madonna adopts another child. I am not interested in the debate as to whether she is being given even more grief than last time because she is now a single mother. Or whether she uses her fame, money and influence to speed up the adoption process. I am not engaging in the controversy over whether this constitutes child trafficking, or whether the child is better off staying in her home country or growing up in a privileged white woman’s house. Maybe this makes me a bad person. But what I am concerned about is that Malawi is in the news at all.
Malawi is not “sexy.” Oprah doesn’t have a school there, the international community is not focused on genocide or civil conflict within its borders, there is no oil, influence or power. What it does have is an estimated 12% HIV/AIDS prevalence rate, is locked in the midst of a food crisis due to alternating flood and drought conditions, where 111 children out of every 1,000 die between birth and the age of five (one of the highest under-five mortality rates in the world), is the world’s 14th poorest country and is gearing up for potentially controversial general elections on May 19th.
So if Madonna has people talking about a country I would guesstimate that 95% of Americans couldn’t find on a map, let alone correctly pronounce its name, then I say “good on ya, Madge!” Keep them talking. Maybe wear that cone bra to court. And every time you or one of your “representatives” are interviewed, maybe slip in a few of the above noted facts until people are talking more about the humanitarian conditions in Malawi that affect millions of children than they are about the impact you may have on just one child.
Written by Sarah Hager, Southern Africa Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA