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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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