Malawi Couple’s Sentence Highlights Gay Rights Struggle in Africa

A Malawian couple became the latest gay rights activists to face a judicial backlash for their public stand on sexuality this week, when they were sentenced to 14 years hard labor for “gross indecency.” Western governments and human rights campaigners around the globe, including 1980s gender-bending pop icon Boy George, have leapt to the couple’s defense.

Malawian authorities arrested Tiwonge Chimbalanga and his partner, Steven Monjeza, on Dec. 26, 2009, after the two participated in a traditional engagement ceremony. Judge Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa sentenced the pair on Thursday, following their convictions on charges of “gross indecency” and “unnatural acts.”

“I will give you a scaring sentence so that the public be protected from people like you, so that we are not tempted to emulate this horrendous example,” the judge told the couple during sentencing, according to the BBC.

International reaction was immediate.

“The government has signed up to international human rights treaties and Malawi’s constitution protects the rights of all its citizens. Infringement of these rights is intolerable. The conviction . . . runs counter to a positive trend,” Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth offices said in a strongly worded joint statement.

“This sentence sends a strong and unacceptable message that discrimination is legally justified in the Malawi justice system,” Amnesty International’s deputy program director for Africa, Michelle Kagari, said in a press release. AI called the decision “an outrage” and vowed to launch a campaign in support of Chimbalanga and Monjeza.

Former Culture Club frontman Boy George immediately lent his voice to support the pair following the sentencing, urging his followers on Twitter to signs petitions and write to Malawian diplomatic officials.

Gay rights continue to be a political hot potato in many Western societies. Decades of campaigning have largely helped the gay community gain broad societal acceptance, but that has yet to translate into uniform protections against discrimination and legal protections for couples’ unions.

In Africa, by comparison, gay relationships remain illegal in 36 countries. Most gay communities on the continent live in fear not only of social stigma, but also of physical assaults, arrests, official harassment and jail. In the last few years, a rise in gay rights activism in Africa and the continuing spread of HIV/AIDS has led to increasingly public hostility towards the gay community.

Uganda, in particular, has come in for fierce criticism over a proposed law that would proscribe punishments, including the death penalty, for individuals engaging in or encouraging gay relationships, or having sexual relations after HIV/AIDS infection. Homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda. Legislators are reconsidering the inclusion of the death penalty following intense international pressure.