Love, labour, loss

Malawian couple sentenced to 14 years of hard labour.  

This Monday, 17 May, was the annual International Day Against Homophobia. A designated day for the world to reflect on the treatment of LGBT people.

In a country like Britain, although there are doubtless still instances of persecution and discrimination, homophobia is not State-sanctioned. Laws exist to protect people- regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. This is not a universal freedom. There was a stark reminder today of just how vast the disparity between the situation in a country like Britain, and that in some countries, remains. It is all too often the case that laws exist to punish people for their choice of partner, and judges have no hesitation in exercising that power. 

Amnesty has been following  the case of Steven Monjeza, 26, and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20 very closely for some time. The couple openly declared their love for one another when they held a very public engagement ceremony, in their home country, Malawi, last year. They were arrested in December, and have not been granted bail since. Declaring that he would “give [them] a scaring sentence so that the public be protected from people like [them], so that we are not tempted to emulate this horrendous example” Judge Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa, sentenced the pair to 14 years in prison with hard labour, after they were convicted of “gross indecency and unnatural acts.”

The sentence was met with condemnation, from human rights organisations across the globe, including Amnesty International. Speaking to the AP news agency, Michelle Kagari, deputy Africa director of Amnesty International, called the sentence "an outrage" She described the pair as "prisoners of conscience"

Malawi is not alone in its treatment of LGBT people. Last night, the BBC featured a special report from John Simpson about plans to introduce draconian new laws against homosexuality in Uganda. Homophobia and its punishment through the courts appears to be thriving on the African continent and shows no sign of receding.  

Yet the defiance of individuals such as Steven and Tiwonge, despite the threat posed to their personal safety and liberty, is awe inspiring. Speaking about dissenting voices in Islamist cultures specifically, in the Independent today, Johann Hari makes a case for such gradual and constant opposition to extreme prejudice:

“There is a battle of ideas going on in Muslim societies between fundamentalists, and sane people who are happy to live alongside people who are different. At first, voices for secularism will be intimidated and small and scattered, as they were in the history of our country. But over time they will prick holes in fundamentalist certainties and bleed them.”

Although the article is predominantly concerned with eroding fundamentalist religious cultures, it also deals with the threat posed to openly gay individuals in Iran and the appeal for perseverance is universally applicable. It was perhaps their consciences that compelled the men to free themselves from their prison of secrecy and so publicly declare their relationship despite the hostility they knew they would face. It was a brave decision in a country where there is such a consensus of contempt amongst the population regarding same-sex relationships. It remains to be seen whether the story of these two young men is part of a wider narrative regarding Africa’s progression toward a more tolerant and accepting ideological culture.

Take action on behalf of Steven and Tiwonge.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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