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Mary Shawa, secretary of state for nutrition, HIV and AIDS, Malawi
Religion and Stigma Fan HIV Epidemic in Malawi

in MALAWI, 23/10/2009

In a first for Malawi, Mary Shawa, secretary for nutrition, HIV and AIDS in the president's office, has initiated a heated debate on the rights of gay men in Malawi. During her opening address at a two-day conference on HIV/AIDS, Shawa advocated for a human rights approach to the delivery of services for people living with HIV/AIDs. Her opinion that the fight against HIV will not be won without a change in attitude towards risk groups, such as men who have sex with men, has unsurprisingly sparked controversy in the conservative African country.

In a first for Malawi, Mary Shawa, secretary for nutrition, HIV and AIDS in the president's office, has initiated a heated debate on the rights of gay men in Malawi. During her opening address at a two-day conference on HIV/AIDS, Shawa advocated for a human rights approach to the delivery of services for people living with HIV/AIDs. Her opinion that the fight against HIV will not be won without a change in attitude towards risk groups, such as men who have sex with men, has unsurprisingly sparked controversy in the conservative African country.

Malawi has some of the harshest laws in all of Africa criminalizing homosexuality. Sex between men is punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment, although it appears that female-to-female sexual relations are legal. Only several months ago, in August of this year, the National Assembly passed a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage. The ban follows an anti-gay campaign, jointly initiated by Christian and Muslim leaders, in response to advocacy by Malawi NGOs demanding repeal of the Penal Code criminalizing homosexuality and pushing for gay marriage. A member of parliament, Edwin Banda, even proposed that the constitution should include a clause stipulating that Malawi is a "God fearing nation", with homosexuality deemed ungodly, a proposal that was later rejected. Other stories from Malawi evidence how religion acts as a barrier to better protections for the rights of homosexuals. According to one report, when Anglican Bishop Nick Henderson was sent to head a diocese in rural Malawi, he was rejected by the congregation for his pro-gay stance and subsequent protests led to the death of a church member.

Unfortunately, what this new debate means is that homosexuality is once again being discussed in the context of sexually transmitted diseases, possibly furthering pre-existing negative perceptions and notions of deviance that exist towards homosexuality in Malawi. At the same time, it is unquestionable that the higher risk facing Malawi's homosexual population, formerly named as “invisible,” means this group must be included information campaigns and guaranteed enhanced access to services.

In November of last year, Malawi held its third annual testing week. Malawi has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world. Estimates range from an 11.8 per cent adult prevalence rate found in the 2004 Demographic and Health Survey to a 14.1 per cent prevalence rate estimated by UNAIDS in 2005. Yet, a study released in Copenhagen in July at the World Outgames, involving 200 Malawi men, 75 per cent of whom had multiple male sexual partners, revealed a prevalence rate among respondents of around 21 per cent, an obvious difference with the national rate. The study's findings provide significant evidence to back Shawa's comments about the need to better target homosexual men. Among respondents, only 1.5 per cent had ever been told by a health professional that they were HIV positive, with 77 per cent never having been asked by a health professional to undergo an HIV test. The impact of criminality and stigmatisation is also revealed by the fact that only 10 per cent has informed a health professional that they have sex with men. The 2007 study also revealed that politicians and leaders in Malawi prefer to promote the idea that homosexuality does not exist in Malawi, making Shawa's comments all the more remarkable.

More generally, according to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), there are around 930,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in Malawi, accounting for 12 per cent of people aged between 12 and 49 years of age in Malawi. 60,000 people die from the disease every year. It can only be hoped that Shawa's comments foster increased, open public debate about some of the cultural causes that continue to spread the virus among men and women or foster stigma against people living with HIV/AIDS. This includes early marriage between young teenage girls and older infected men as well as other forms of sexual exploitation against young women, including forced sex in exchange for passing school imposed by male teachers. It is, in fact, particularly important that the rights of women living with HIV are not lost in this debate, given that 2004 figures reveal that women represent 56.8 per cent of the adult HIV positive population. The 2004 report of the UN Secretary General's Task Force on Women, Girls and HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa reveals that marriage is a risk factor, with 17.5% of married Malawi men having had extramarital sex in the 12 months prior to the study. The lack of recognition of marital rape also does not help. Many Malawi women are brought up to believe that a woman should not refuse to have sex with her husband. Additionally, as Avert notes, the practice of 'wife inheritance', where a widow is married to a relative of her husband upon his death, also increases risks of HIV infection were AIDs was the cause of death of the previous husband.

It remains to be seen whether Shawa's comments will have an impact on the rights of gay men in Malawi or the lives of people living with HIV in the country more generally. Unquestionably, given the climate, Shawa deserves high praise for putting on the table for public discussion the centrality of human rights to the fight against HIV/AIDS.

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