Lilongwe — Are Malawians, apparently, overwhelmingly prejudiced against homosexuality? And what does it signal when politicians call for a referendum on the issue of homosexuality?
Recently, a number of presidential candidates for the 2014 elections have proposed a referendum to decide on the fate of homosexuals in Malawi. What precisely is to be decided is unclear: that homosexuality exists, that homosexuals have rights, that homosexuals should be punished or even condemned to death, as some religious leaders have advocated?
The consequences of a homophobic vote could see persons who engage in homosexual acts continuing to face jail terms of up to 14 years, or further tightening of laws that currently criminalise same-sex sexuality.
In Malawi, homosexuality is possibly the most divisive issue in current public discourse. Globally, the persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people is an atrocious reflection of continued, and often state-sanctioned, exclusion, marginalisation and prejudice. At the same time, recent debates suggest a need for better understanding and alternative solutions.
A lack of knowledge and information, compounded by an unwillingness to understand the realities of homosexuality, has resulted in our political and religious leaders' failure to appropriately address the issue and those lives most affected.
In May 2011, in her state of the nation address, President Joyce Banda asserted that the provisions of the penal code that criminalise homosexual acts should be repealed. In November 2012, during a public debate, the justice minister announced the suspension of sodomy laws.
Since then, some political parties have indicated they would oppose any move to decriminalise homosexuality, and a number of religious and traditional leaders have expressed similar sentiments. Interestingly, the Malawi Human Rights Commission has not made its position clear on homosexuality as a human rights matter.
As a basis for deciding how to vote, the public has demanded that presidential hopefuls come out of their shells and state how they would deal with LGBT people should they come to power – based on their actual views rather than on mere rhetoric or propaganda.