There is no global consensus that sexual orientation is malleable. “Even in organisations where this is much touted, it is considered an abnormality,” says Makhumbo Munthali the National Coordinator for Ethics, Peace and Justice at the Evangelical Association of Malawi (EAM). He thinks that creating laws based on disorders is wrong. That it is the union between a man and a woman that should be protected by both individuals and the law.
Malawi is among the many countries where the issue of same sex marriage remains controversial. The differing viewpoints throughout the Malawian population mean there is lack of awareness and consensus among locals when it comes to recognising same sex marriage as a human right. This remains the case even in a country which, according to government, has a population of 40 000 gays out of a total populace of about 17 million people.
The divided opinion on this issue has filtered down to civil society organisations (CSOs). CSOs fight for those in minority, while most side with the religious leaders who hold the view that same sex marriage is a curse and a sin.
Malawi identifies itself as a Christian nation with no religious conflict, teachings in Christianity perpetuate the idea that same sex marriage destroys traditional family values. In their eyes, marriage was created for conceiving children and rearing them in the traditional way.
“Malawi is a Christian nation and we do not have interest in legalising same sex marriages. This is something new to us and we are pledging to continue lobbying with stakeholders, including our faith groups, not to accept it,” says Munthali.
The issue reached its climax in 2016 when other Malawians proposed that government hold a referendum on whether or not to legalise homosexuality. This did not go well with CSOs fighting for rights of key populations such as the Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP). The concern? The idea of holding a referendum was shot down on the basis that issues of human rights should never be argued against . Apart from that, CEDEP proposes that a law should be passed in parliament to guarantee same-sex to people.
On the 6th of December 2016 thousands of Malawians took to the street in the prolife and marriage march. They aimed to deliver a petition to parliament against legalising abortion and same sex marriages. Two church bodies EAM and the Episcopal Conference of Malawi joined the march.
Locals at the pro-life and pro-family march brandish their signs.
The two church mother bodies shot down a purported decision to table a bill in parliament to legalise abortion and same sex marriage. One of the CSOs, EAM, is of the view that homosexuality is an abnormality. And so it would be retrogressive to give a nod to a disorder and recognise it as a right.
Munthali says: “To me it does not make sense to accept gay marriages in Malawi, we consider this as a disorder as we Christians believe that marriage is between a man and a woman.”
Rights defenders still challenge government with the aim of having the institution review the country’s anti-gay laws. This, in an attempt to abate the harassment people go through on the grounds of their sexuality or gender identity.
According to Munthali, the pro-life and pro-family march reminded law makers to protect the union between a man and a woman. Although he did add that CSOs have a right to express their opinion, including on the importance to recognise same sex marriages. “Let them proceed but at the end of the day what really matters is the interest of Malawians.”
CEDEP is vowing to leave no stone unturned in lobbying for the rights of minority groups, despite pressure from local faith groups. Semion Thodie is the communications manager for CEDEP. He admits that Malawi’s cultural background and religion puts a strain on their interventions. He is quick to point out that religion makes it hard for CSOs to penetrate society with their messages of tolerance, acceptance and equal rights. These are just some of the challenges rights defenders are experiencing.
“Religious groups do not want gays, lesbians, transgender and the intersex in their churches so it becomes a challenge for them to be accommodated. Most of the people in Malawi are religious so they don’t respect the rights of the minority.”
Thodie called for collective action among all CSOs defending the rights of the citizens. He strongly condemned those leaving out the rights of minority groups in their work. Instead he encouraged the citizenry to associate with everyone regardless of their sexual orientation.
“If you are a human rights defender you don’t say that you are only concentrating on the right to food, or right to health but not the rights of key populations. I would be happy if all civil society organisations in Malawi could do this non-selectively just as we do at CEDEP.”