EARLY IN 2010, a legal trial in Malawi made international news when two individuals were sentenced to fourteen years in prison for holding a traditional engagement ceremony or “chinkhoswe.” The couple were a transgender woman named Tiwonge Chimbalanga and a man named Steven Monjeza, whose act of mutual devotion was deemed an “unnatural offense” under Malawi’s highly ambiguous criminal code, by a clearly homophobic judge who declared: “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. We are sitting here to represent the Malawi society, which I do not believe is ready at this point in time to see its sons getting married to other sons or conducting engagement ceremonies.” The ruling was condemned by human rights groups around the world, including Amnesty International and the World Bank, to the point that President Bingu wa Mutharika pardoned the two individuals a few months after their trial.
Two years after the arrest, trial, and reversal of their sentence, the debate on whether Malawi should legalize same-sex relationships took a new twist as the country’s new administration suspended all laws that have been used against people suspected to be in same-sex relationships. The new government in Lilongwe said it has opted to temporarily shelve the anti-gay laws as a way of allowing people to debate the matter freely, before parliament makes a last decision.
A little background: the Republic of Malawi is a former British colony in southeast Africa, roughly the size of Ohio with a population of about fifteen million. Malawi does not have explicitly anti-gay laws in its own legal code but uses some laws left behind by the British colonial government following independence in 1964. These laws include: Section 137A, which defines “indecent practices between females”; Section 156, which describes “indecent practices between males”; and section154, which focuses on one particular “unnatural offense” regardless of gender, specifying a prison term of seven years for “anyone who has anal intercourse with another person, or permits a male to have anal intercourse with him/her.”