Malawi: Are Southern Africa’s human rights commissions equipped to protect queer rights?

Eric Sambisa’s gamble did not pay off. In December 2015, the Malawian became the first person to openly come out as gay on national television.

“Being gay in Malawi is always associated with negatives. I wanted to show the Malawian nation that we are human beings … like every other citizen in the country,” he says. 

But there were consequences to his decision.

“My life became hell after that. I had to run away out of town, but I had no money to travel to faraway places. I still don’t have good ties with my family.”

Shortly after Sambisa’s coming out, Ken Msonda, spokesperson for the People’s Party — Malawi’s opposition party — called for the killing of the country’s gay people.

Msonda wrote on Facebook: “Arresting them won’t address this problem because sooner or later they are being released on bail. The best way to deal with this problem is to KILL them!”

Sambisa says: “I couldn’t go to our Human Rights Commission, when I know it is already associated with the government and it felt like the government was hunting me. I have never heard the Malawi Human Rights Commission [MHRC] caring about LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex] issues. They represent the heterosexual community.”

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian earlier this year, Gift Trapence — director of Malawi’s Centre for the Development of People — says that when President Peter Mutharika came to power in 2014 and was asked during presidential debates what his thoughts on gay rights were, he said he would put it to a referendum.

There never was a referendum, but in November last year the country’s government tasked the MHRC with conducting a countrywide poll to look into Malawi’s attitude to legal equality for LGBTI people and counting the number of queer people in the country.

It was a move that had human rights activists up in arms.

“If the MHRC really want to do something, they should investigate abuses against LGBTI people,” says Trapence. “We don’t want the public inquiry. We want it cancelled. It will only further the discrimination and abuse faced by LGBTI people in Malawi.”

A few months later, following consultations with civil rights organisations, the commission agreed to abandon the survey and, instead, undertake a study looking into the issue of queer rights. 

The objective of the study was to gather information “on laws, practices, perceptions [and] attitudes” that affect Malawi’s LGBTI people to inform government’s legal and policy stance.

Although Trapence welcomed the recent decision to drop the poll, saying, “this is a progressive decision for the commission”, he says the body’s plan to do a count of the nation’s sexual minorities is of concern.

Read more via Mail & Guard