Malawi's President Joyce Banda has announced her intention to repeal a number of laws that have made Malawi into a pariah state, from its ban on homosexuality to broad police powers of search and arrest, to a law that allows cabinet ministers to shut down newspapers.
Announced in Parliament on Friday, the planned repeals come at a time when Malawi – an impoverished state of 14 million, half of whom live on less than a dollar a day – is seeking to reestablish links with Western donor nations that were severed during the tempestuous final years of the late Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika.
The repeal of the ban on homosexuality and on same-sex marriages may appeal to foreign donors, but it would be a deeply unpopular move for many Malawians, who regard homosexuality to be a sin and, as Malawi's colonial-laws call it, "an unnatural act."
In 2010, President Mutharika’s administration came under heavy fire from the international community after a local court sentenced a gay couple to spend 14 years in prison for practicing homosexuality. United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, flew in to the capital of Lilongwe to address an impromptu meeting of Parliament before a private meeting with Mutharika to express concern about the severity of the court's decision.
The gay couple, Tionge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, were later released following a presidential pardon but the law remains in force.
President Banda’s announcement has sparked a debate over whether Malawi should accept everything that the donors tell them to do, even if it is against the cultural and religious background of the society.
Among the strongest views come from Malawi's powerful evangelical community. Billy Mayaya of the Church and Society, a social and development wing of the Church of the Central Africa Presbyterian [CCAP] of Nkhoma Synod in Lilongwe, says that President Banda should consult with citizens before making such a drastic change in Malawian law.
“There is need for proper consultation before the law if referred back to the Malawi Law Society and then Parliament, says Mr. Mayaya. "Malawians need to be consulted. Over the years, the church has also made its stand on this sticky issue very clear. I feel Malawians have the right to discuss what constitutes different sexual orientations before a law is put in place.”
The Nkhoma Synod, in a pastoral letter, wrote that the Bible condemns homosexuality.
“It is biblically and culturally an evil that dehumanizes people and provokes God’s wrath," the Synod's pastoral letter reads. "We advise our members to categorically refrain from such a practice and advocate its termination from our society. We stand in solidarity with the majority of Malawians who equally condemn the practice of homosexuality.”
The opposition party, People’s Transformation [Petra] party says that decriminalizing homosexuality would be a "grave mistake." "We therefore urge Members of Parliament, faith leaders, Christians, and Muslims to resist any intention directly or indirectly to legalize same sex marriages,” says Petra president Kamuzu Chibambo, in Blantyre, Malawi’s second largest city.
Malawi's erstwhile donors, meanwhile, welcomed the announcement by Banda.
Speaking last Thursday during Norway’s Constitutional Day in Lilongwe, Norway's ambassador to Malawi, Asbjorn Eidhammer, said that all governments bear the responsibility to protect people who are different from the majority, both from prosecution and from persecution.
“Norway urges all governments to take steps to eliminate stigma and discrimination faced by people at risk,” Ambassador Eidhammer said.
Human rights perspective
Human rights activist Undule Mwakasungura also welcomed Banda's promised repeals.
“As it is now, the laws are infringing on minority groups such as gays because of their sexual orientation," said Mr. Mwakasungura, executive director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation. "Gays are human beings just like any other person. Why should they suffer because of their sexual orientation? As custodians of human rights we welcome this move to repeal the law.”
But to sell the repeal of the anti-gay law to ordinary Malawians, President Banda will have her work cut out for her.
David Mulyasanga, a Blantyre based worker and self-described Christian, says he would find offensive any law that legalizes homosexuality.
“It is something that most Malawians will have problems to accept," says Mr. Mulyasanga. "People ask questions each time they see two young men or young ladies living together for more than two years. The general notion is that a man should marry a woman at some point in life not a man marrying a fellow man or a woman tying a knot with a fellow woman.”
In the northern city of Mzuzu, Mtende Chirwa says Malawians should not simply accept the policies favored by foreign donors.
“Where are we heading as a nation?" he says. "We are a God-fearing nation and anything contrary to that is un-Malawian. We should have the courage to tell the donors that some of these human rights are not part of our culture and society.”
But one university student in the southern city of Zomba – who did not want to be named – says that Malawi has to be realistic about its own dependence on foreign funds, and must recognize that democracy requires elements of compromise.
“Malawians will have to live with this," the student says. "We are a poor country and therefore donors will continue to dictate to us what to do. Economically we cannot stand on our own.”