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Towards a progressive debate on LGBTQI+ Rights in Malawi

Highlights from a groundbreaking study

Context and research strategy

It is now nearly a decade since Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, both legally recognised as male, were arrested for holding a traditional wedding ceremony which triggered a contentious public debate on whether people who do not conform to heterosexual norms are entitled to human rights in Malawi. The debate has been dominated by calls for unequivocal rejection of ‘homosexuality’, countered by a fewer and usually smaller voices calling for social inclusion and recognition of LGBTQI+ rights. Many of these calls appear to be deafer than would be optimal for significant change.

Four claims stand out in terms of rejection of LGBTQI+ rights. Firstly, it is claimed that homosexuality does not exist in Africa, and so, logically, nor in Malawi. Where it does exist, it is implicated as occidental moral corruption. Secondly, it is claimed that sexual or gender non-conformity is an abomination to religious and cultural values that must never be tolerated. Thirdly, it is claimed that ‘homosexuality’ is criminal and not deserving of human rights protection. Fourthly, that those at the forefront in rejecting these claims are deriving the mandate of the people.

And so…the issue remains unresolved.

But neither has the government offered a solution. Curiously, it has been contradictory several times. For example, in 2012 President Joyce Banda expressed in her inaugural state of the nation address her intention to repeal anti-gay laws in the penal code, but soon-after retracted her position following backlash from political and religious leaders. She, instead, proposed a moratorium on the arrest of LGBTQI+ people. In 2015, incumbent President Peter Mutharika proposed a "yes or no" referendum on ‘whether to legalise homosexuality’, but soon-after retracted the position. In 2017, government instructed the Malawi Human Rights Commission to conduct a national public inquiry to seek peoples’ views about homosexuality to guide the government on whether to decriminalise anti-gay laws or not, but the plans were shelved following widespread concerns about the process.

It is against this that we conducted a nationally representative survey to find out what people in all districts of Malawi think about the issues around homosexuality and the LGBTQI+ community. This culminated in a report entitled Under Wraps: A survey of public attitudes to homosexuality and gender non-conformity in Malawi (click here for the free report), which was launched in Lilongwe on 21 November 2019. The report offers some obvious but also surprising findings.

We were conscious of the fact that the impasse does not only arise from different opinions, but also from varied understandings of the issues and questions being contested. For example, what is the homosexuality that people reject? Is it being lesbian, transgender, gay man, intersex or bisexual? What are the human rights that people reject? Is it the protection of LGBTQI+ people from violence, or the imaginary right to engage in homosexual sex?

Based on my article entitled Chilungamo and the question of LGBTQ+ Rights in Malawi, we drew from local terminologies of Chilungamo and uMunthu which connote principles of justice and humanity. In our view, this was a way to pre-empt misrepresentation of what human rights protection based on sexual orientation and gender identity entails. We also used locally appropriate descriptions of being lesbian, gay, transgender, queer or intersex to avoid derogative terminology that deliberately incite disgust or biased repudiation.

The findings in perspective

Under Wraps Study (2019)

Our survey engaged people across Malawi who we deemed would give representative views that Malawians hold on these issues. We found that 3.5% of Malawians do not conform to dominant gender and sexual norms. To put into perspective based on the latest national population census, there are more LGBTQI+ persons in Malawi than the populations of Likoma (0.1%)Mwanza (0.7%), Neno (0.8%), Mzuzu City (1%) and Zomba city (0.7%) combined.

We also found that whilst 80% of Malawians believe that homosexuality is wrong and that 23% might even be violent towards LGBTQI+ people in future, nearly 9 out of 10 Malawians agreed that LGBTQI+ persons should be protected by the constitution. This suggests that although Malawians hold negative views about homosexuality, these views may be more nominal than engrained in actionable contempt, and Malawians would find it legitimate for LGBTQI+ persons to be treated in a humane and just manner.

Under Wraps Study (2019)

To what extent do Malawians favour repeal of laws against sexual and gender non-conformity? We found that 60-68% of the population do not yet envision legal protection of LGBT persons. If, for the sake of argument, we say that at least 40% of Malawians support the legal protection of LGBT persons, it is more than the number of Malawians on the May 2019 elections’ voters roll (approximately 39% of the total population), and nearly four times the number of votes secured by the winner (11.05% of the total population). Views of 42% of the population should therefore not be summarily dismissed as insignificant.

And in conclusion…

The key message from this timely and ground-breaking survey is that Malawi has an LGBTQI+ population that is significant enough for us not to ignore if we are to ensure the cardinal commitment to leave no one behind, as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) stipulate, is fulfilled in its entirety. It also tells us that Malawians’ views about homosexuality and LGBTQI+ rights are diverse, and that in some cases they are more tolerant than we assume.

This thus opens up a renewed research agenda with potential to inform evidence-based policies and laws, programming as well as progressive social inclusion.


Alan Msosa holds a PhD in Human Rights from the University of Essex Human Rights Centre. He is alumnus of Commonwealth Scholarship, Canon Collins Scholarship, and the Chevening Scholarship. He is also a Research Affiliate with the University of Bergen Centre on Law and Social Transformation.

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