Malawian court’s 14-year sentence for gay men widely condemned

Nathan Geffen, TAC

A Malawian magistrate has sentenced Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga to 14 years hard labour after convicting them of “indecent practices between males” and “unnatural offenses”. This is the maximum sentence under Malawian law. Monjeza and Chimbalanga were arrested after holding an engagement ceremony for their civil partnership. They were denied bail and imprisoned throughout their trial. Monjeza is male and Chimbalanga is a transgender woman.

The conviction and sentence have been condemned by AIDS and human rights groups across the world, as well as the United States and United Kingdom governments and the South African Human Rights Commission. Demonstrations against the conviction have been held at Malawian embassies in the UK, the US and South Africa, with more planned.

The Southern Africa Law Centre, Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, Centre for the Development of People and the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa are assisting Monjeza and Chimbalanga with their legal defence. The magistrate’s decision is being appealed.

The importance of this issue in the context of HIV prevention and treatment was highlighted by a press statement about the case, issued by the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria (GFATM). “The criminalisation of individuals based on their sexual orientation is not just a human rights issue – it also undermines investment in HIV and AIDS as it drives sexual behavior underground and creates an environment where HIV can more easily spread”, says Prof. Michel Kazatchkine, Executive Director of the Global Fund. “This ultimately affects the broader population, in addition to the devastating impact it has on communities of men who have sex with men”.

In southern Africa more than 50% of men who have sex with men also have sex with women. A recent study shows high levels of bisexual behavior in Malawi.

The linkage between proposed legislation in Uganda and actual judicial practice in Malawi – the links between MSM and HIV – are explained in an excellent article published last year in the Lancet by Adrian Smith and colleagues titled ‘Men who have sex with men and HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa’.

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As this issue went to press we learned that the President of Malawi overturned the convictions and issued a pardon for Steven and Tiwonge.

This is an important outcome and achievement for these two people.

It needs to be followed with further progressive action, to enable similar abuses of  human right to be tackled systematically in order to reduce the stigma  faced by individuals highlighted by this case.

Magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa’s judgment can be downloaded from:

A petition for Monjeza and Chimbalanga to be freed can be signed here:

Community Media Trust have produced a video about this:

Youtube video from Malawi that protests the case results:

Press statement from the Global Fund (21 May 2010):

Smith A et al. Men who have sex with men and HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. The Lancet, Volume 374, Issue 9687, Pages 416 – 422, 1 August 2009. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(09)61118-1 9)61118-1/abstract

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