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May 26, 2012

IconLet’s not ‘Banda’ homosexuality

After years of living in fear and anonymity, finally the gay communities of Malawi might have something to smile about.  Can this set a precedent for reform elsewhere?

“The wind of change is blowing through the continent.”  Macmillan had a way with words, didn’t he?  Speaking out against the system of apartheid in South Africa, the then British PM summed up the mood at the beginning of an era of huge positive change for the whole of Africa, as the first small steps towards the end of its cruel and racist systems of government began to be taken.

Why am I re-hashing this quotation you ask?  Well, aside from an unwavering conviction in the sentiments behind it, I believe that it now has a new application in Malawi.  But this time, the “winds” are sweeping away the threat of homophobia, rather than racism.

Banda the Great

After being thrust into power last month following the death of her predecessor, Joyce Banda, the new President of Malawi, has surged straight into her role with a long-awaited attack on the country’s archaic criminalisation of homosexuality.  Declaring the repeal of these laws “a matter of urgency”, Banda has vowed to overturn them; as she holds a majority in the Malawian parliament, this aim looks likely to be achieved.

Currently, Malawi helps to make up the 66% of African countries which have laws criminalising homosexuality. Arguably, in the modern world, this is indeed a shocking statistic.  But this is a small step towards changing that situation; a small, but immensely brave, step from the leader of one of the world’s poorest countries.

So what of Banda herself?  Who is this woman?  And what motivates her to fly in the face not only of this conservative country but, indeed, the majority of the continent?  Looking back at Banda’s life, it is clear that she is a remarkable woman dedicated to socialism and to upholding the rights of those whose rights have long been forgotten by everyone else.  She is the founder of the Joyce Banda Foundation (not originally named, but we’ll overlook the unimaginative appellation), which aims to improve the education provision for Malawian children and also The National Association of Business Women and the Hunger Project in Malawi.  In summary, it seems that her philanthropy knows no bounds.  Banda is a true role model.

Change for good?

Despite all this good news, though, I am still sceptical.  Not about Joyce Banda’s motives, although this new legislation would make her country more attractive to Western leaders and therefore make the chances of financial aid being given to the country far more likely.  No, my concern comes from how likely this trend is to spread and continue.  Malawi, and indeed the majority of African countries, are notoriously conservative and have ‘traditional’ beliefs that extend into many areas of life; their laws also reflect this.  For example, just last year, Stephen Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, a Malawian couple, were arrested and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment after holding a party to celebrate their engagement (Tiwonge Chimbalanga is a transexual woman).

When Macmillan made his anti-racism speech in 1960, little did he know that the scourge of apartheid was to remain for another 30 years.  Some would argue that, in practice, it still hasn’t really gone away.  Attitudes take longer to shape and change than laws do and, unfortunately, it is these attitudes that will remain, long after legislation has been eradicated.  In addition, Banda’s term as President is only assured until 2014, when the country’s leadership election will be held and the Malawian people will decide her fate.

My hope is that this will be the start of a change.  I hope that, over the course of the next two years, the new regime implemented by Banda will improve life in Malawi to such a degree that its inhabitants will barely be able to remember life before it.  I hope that other African countries will take note of this new attitude and will also take steps to making their countries happier places for their gay communities and indeed for all minorities who feel threatened or scared or mistreated.  I hope that Banda will forever be remembered as a key player in the international fight against homophobia.  Whether this hope becomes a reality remains to be seen, but this I know to be true: in this fight, as with so many, hope itself is vital.

2 Responses to Let’s not ‘Banda’ homosexuality

  1. Eth says:

    Tiwonge Chimbalanga is a woman, thus her and Steven are not a gay couple, but a straight one.
    While that they’re still caught by it shows the absurdity of such laws, please don’t gaywash trans people out of the picture.

    • Sue Curley says:

      My apologies. From the information I had read it appeared that they were a gay couple. I totally agree that the trans community should have just as much recognition as any other group. I will go back and amend the article accordingly. Thank you for our comment.

Sue Curley

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