The imprisonment and consequent acquittal of a gay couple in Malawi in 2009 sparked off the debate over homosexuality in Malawi.
In the course of the debate in the conservative country religious leaders went as far as equating same-sex liaisons with Satanism.
One organisation is trying to calm things down. Behind the Mask’s correspondent Melissa Wainaina interviewed Bruce Tushabe, the HIV, Gender and Human Rights Advocacy Advisor for an inter-faith network called Manrela (the Malawi Network of Religious Leaders Living With and Personally Affected by HIV Aids) to see what they were doing to make things better.
Manrela is an innovative and crucial project in which religious leaders, who pay an influential role in the lives of ordinary Malawian people, are encouraged to be more tolerant and nurture acceptance towards LGBT living in Malawi. Below are excerpts of the interview:
Please tell me a little about Manrela and your focus on LGBT or MSM.
Manrela is an interfaith and voluntary membership network of religious leaders living with or personally affected by HIV and Aids. It was formed in 2004 and sprang out of the African Network of Religious Leaders Living With or Personally Affected by HIV and Aids (Anrela).
Our aim is to prevent and mitigate the impact of TB, HIV and Aids through reduction of stigma, silence, denial, discrimination, inaction and miss-action at community and national level.
We strive to always ensure that vulnerable communities are hardly hit by the HIV/Aids pandemic have capacity to provide for their livelihoods and their health improved, including that of the key affected populations or most at risk populations (MARPS).
Since the imprisonment and consequent acquittal of a gay couple in Malawi in 2009, several many initiatives came up from different players to ensure that the rights of LGBTI are respected and known. But this has not yielded much results as the government keeps negating the situation through traditional leaders.
However, knowing that religious leaders have an influence on changing perceptions, attitudes and behaviour of people, Manrela through this project seeks to empower religious leaders with the right information about LGBTI. By winning them over, they will be very useful allies in changing attitudes and policies.
For instance, religious leaders have been in the fore front of condemning political regimes in Malawi since 1993 when Malawi had single-party system of government through the writing of pastoral letters to the head of state, open letters to the faith community and the involvement of the media to change oppresive situations in malawi.
Through the development of the information packs on LGBTI, Manrela envisions a decrease in the number of LGBTI that are excommunicated from faith communities.
Malawi’s grant application from the Global Fund has also been rejected since 2010. Among the reasons is the lack of recognition of and interventions targeting Men having sex with Men (MSM) who are part of the most at risk group in Malawi. With these interventions targeing LGBTI, Manrela hopes that Malawi will realise a decrease in HIV prevalence rate.
What is the level of societal homophobia in Malawi? How is it being countered?
LGBT is unacceptable in almost all communities in Malawi. Stigma and discrimination is very high. That is both external stigma and self-stigma. LGBT are seen as social outcasts in the society. This situation continues to grow.
You mentioned a project seeking tolerance between LGBTI and clergy, tell us a little more about this initiative.
We have submitted a proposal to OSISA (Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa) and the project’s is aim to tackle challenges faced by minority groups through integrated faith based responses. However on breaking stigma and discrimination among the faith based communities, Manrela has done its best.
We have a holistic approach of interventions and we encompass LGBT issues in the rights based approach.
We believe that religious leaders still hold a firm stand and command attention and respect in the communities. The challenges from our interactions among religious leaders has been denial (to say that LGBT) do not exist in the communities. This of course has made it difficult for the LGBT to come out and disclose, seek for medical services and any other psycho-social support from the communities.
We realize that if the religious leaders are more informed about LGBT and accept them as equals in churches and mosques, then stigma and discrimination will reduce tremendously.
In our proposed project, we envisage a supportive environment where LGBT are able to participate equally in decision-making, access services and have fair treatment from the community.
At times we have been perceived as diverting from the biblical teachings, judged over the Christian values we stand for and we face criticisms from the government too.
There is still resistance from some sections of religious leaders and a visible division and different ideologies on LGBT issues among religious leaders.
How is the human rights situation in Malawi currently?
LGBT is still an “unacceptable vice” in Malawi. This alone sends messages to human rights principles. Although attempts are being made to mitigate human rights abuse of key affected populations and LGBTI in particular, there have been statements uttered by public officials that are retrogressive.
Further, there is a new proposed child adoption bill that proposes that same sex couples should not be allowed to adopt children. The recently passed penal code has also added penalties for those found to be lesbians with a five years imprisonment.