Malawian couple face 14-year jail sentence

Arrest of a same-sex couple in the African state spotlights endemic persecution

As the gay rights cause makes headway in Latin America, with same-sex marriage becoming legal in Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, a story from Africa has illustrated that this is not the case across the globe.

Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 29, and Steven Monjeza, 26, were arrested at their home in Malawi two days after they were married in a symbolic ceremony last weekend. They were accused of "unnatural practices between males" and gross indecency, and will face up to 14 years in prison if found guilty. Today they were denied bail, amid reports of beatings in prison.

It has remained unclear why they chose to make such a public statement -- homosexuality is illegal in the Southern African state. But the case has shone a spotlight on the terrible social and state persecution that gay people face in Africa.

Sadly, it is not a unique story. In Senegal last year, 25 men were arrested at a party and charged with committing indecent acts. In Uganda in 2008, several gay rights activists were arrested. There are countless more stories that do not cause sufficient international outcry to reach our ears.

But while other continents take steps towards acknowledging the human rights of homosexuals, there is a worrying tide of increasingly conservative legislation actually growing across Africa. Gay sex is illegal in 37 African countries, with Burundi the latest addition, criminalising it in 2009. Uganda's parliament is debating legislation that would introduce the death penalty for homosexuality, a policy already in place in Sudan and some northern states of Nigeria.

South Africa is the only country on the continent that legally protects gay rights.

Pearson Mtata, professor of sociology at the University of Malawi, discussed the case of Chimbalanga and Monjeza on national radio, saying:

This has given us a wake-up call but also a new chapter in terms of how we deepen the discussion or the debate on the gay citizens in Malawi.

This seems optimistic, given that the magistrate said he was denying the men bail for their own protection: "The public out there is angry with them." Reports described a hostile crowd outside the court, taunting the couple.

But a glimmer of hope is the burgeoning gay rights movement, gathering force across Africa -- a handful of activists were there outside the court, too. Let's hope they have the strength to keep up the fight.


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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.