Malawians appear to widely support Thursday's sentencing of a gay couple here to 14 years in prison for practicing homosexuality, despite widespread condemnation of the case from human rights groups and foreign governments.
Many Malawians say being gay is unnatural and unpatriotic, and they welcomed the jail sentence as a repudiation of secular culture.
“These practices should not be allowed in Malawi," says Rose Chipumphula, 25, a mother who lives in the village of Ntcheu. "Let us be proud of our culture. We should at all costs avoid importing cultures and practices that will harm us in future."
In a country where 80 percent of the population practices Christianity, homosexuality is widely condemned on religious grounds.
“My religion and my church are against same sex marriages. The Bible says he who finds a wife has found a good thing… It does not say the man who finds a man or a woman who finds a woman. This whole thing is un-Christian,” says Chipumphula.
At a church function here in April, President Bingu wa Mutharika said homosexuality is a new phenomenon in Malawi and asked priests to pray for the country to rid it of this “unMalawian” practice. Information Minister Sausten Namakhwa has said the government will arrest any homosexuals who identify themselves.
Criticism from financial donors US, UK
Thursday's conviction only highlights Malawi's discrimination toward homosexuals. Magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa Usiwa sentenced Tiwonge Chimbalanga, a 20-year-old hotel janitor, and his unemployed partner Steven Monjeza, 26, to the maximum 14 years imprisonment with hard labor, following their conviction Tuesday for “gross indecency” and “unnatural acts” under a British-colonial era law. They were arrested Dec. 26.
“I find that the state has established its case beyond reasonable doubt," Magistrate Usiwa said Thursday, adding that the acts were "against the order of nature." Both men were forced to undergo an involuntary anal examination and psychiatric evaluation.
Defense lawyers have not indicated if they will appeal.
"We view the criminalization of sexual orientation and gender identity as a step backward in the protection of human rights in Malawi," the US Embassy said in a statement today.
A joint statement from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) said it was "deeply dismayed by the conviction." Despite progress on human rights in recent years, today's sentencing "runs counter to a positive trend," the statement reads.
Criticism also came from The Common Approach to Budgetary Support (Cabs), an aid coordinator made up of the African Development Bank (AfDB), Norway, Britain, Germany, the World Bank, the IMF, and the European Commission. Cabs contributes about $500 million to Malawi's government, or about 40 percent of the budget.
“Laws criminalizing homosexuality and gender identity criminalize the legitimate exercise of these human rights, which are protected in treaties ratified by Malawi, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights,” read the statement.
It was unclear, however, if the conviction would translate into reduced donor funding.
Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, also condemned the ruling and called for the pair's release. Amnesty warned that the convictions risk driving other gay Malawian's underground, making it more difficult for them to have access to information on HIV prevention and health services. In Malawi, nearly 1 million people – an estimated 12 percent of the population – are living with HIV.
“Sending two to prison won’t solve the problem," says Undule Mwakasungura, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Rehabilitation.
“Nobody was harmed by their consensual actions. There was no complaint or victim and these are the issues we have to look at,” says Gift Trapence, executive director of the Center Development of People (Cedep).
Law reflects public sentement
But despite the criticism and risk of losing donor support, Malawi's anti-homosexuality law appears to roundly reflect popular sentiment here and across Africa, where 37 countries ban homosexuality outright.
Bartholomew Kawina, a local journalist who lives the southern town of Balaka, says that he believes homosexuality is against nature. “They [homosexuals] are here because of procreation," says Kawina. "In my view homosexuals have a big problem. To me homosexuality does not make sense."
Ernest Mahwayo, 30, who lives in the village of Ntcheu, says the court was merely following "the laws of Malawi."
"Homosexuality is viewed as something dirty, unhealthy, and very much against Malawian culture," he says.