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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Overlooking the effect of Brexit on Northern Ireland is dangerous for the whole UK

We voted to remain in the European Union. The tensions caused by the referendum outcome, and ignoring its effect on us, will cause utter carnage in Northern Ireland.

I’ve been from Northern Ireland all my life. Having spent many years living in Dublin, and now London, I’m quite used to that very fact making people uncomfortable. I get it. From a glance at the news, it would seem we fight each other about flags and anthems and are inexcusably proud of throwing glass at people in bowler hats, or daubing on our own homes the worst paintings ever committed to brickwork. Our tiny little protectorate has generated such disproportionate levels of confusing violence, most people are terrified of saying the wrong thing about any of it. We’re the celiac vegans of nationalities; the worry is that almost anything you offer will offend.

Most people avoid such worries by – whisper it – simply never acknowledging that we exist. This reflexive forgetfulness is, of course, a happy state of affairs compared to what went before. I refer, of course, to the period named, with that Ulster-tinged strain of sardonic understatement, the Troubles, when some 3,600 people were killed and ten times that injured. By some estimates, as many as 115,000 people lost a close relative to violence in this time, and many more a good friend, a colleague or an old school pal. Taken as a portion of 1.5m people, this means a startlingly high percentage of Northern Irish citizens have been directly affected by the conflict, certainly a higher percentage than that of, say, the English electorate who have ever voted for Ukip.

Northern Ireland also contains Britain’s only fully open border with the EU. I know because I grew up on it, specifically between Derry and Donegal, where my dad's back fence demarked an invisible boundary, a small hop from the UK to the Republic, and back. From a migration point of view, this poses a problem, so when Brexit was being deliberated, it did seem odd that Northern Ireland was barely mentioned at all, that the one border that exists in the entire country was given such scant reference during the campaign’s interminable duration. A dreaded EU migrant, travelling freely through Ireland toward my father’s house will not be subject to border checks once he has passed it quietly behind him. No machine guns, no "papers please", none of the fortified rigour mandated by the Leave campaign. Implementing such fortifications would, of course, be a practical nightmare, since so many live in Ireland but work in the UK, and vice versa. But the psychological effect of such a move would be infinitely worse.


Much of the Good Friday Agreement was predicated on free movement between north and south, and cross-border bodies that reinforced a soft-union of the two states; just enough to ameliorate nationalists, but nothing so resembling a united Ireland as to antagonise unionists. Making Irish-identifying Northern Irish citizens undergo any form of border checkpoint between the two countries would not just be a bureaucratic hassle, it would massively inhibit the self-determination nearly half of Northern Ireland's population takes from both countries’ status within a wider European state.

The peace that exists rests largely on this status quo, the acceptance of people who reject violent means and see little injustice in being allowed to live their lives within a British state that dignifies their close connection to their southern neighbours. It is hard to overstate how different this situation would be were armed checkpoints to re-emerge. I remember checkpoints as a child. I remember machine guns and dogs and my dad making sure we weren't nervous while he was being interrogated by armed men inspecting his driving license and checking under our car for explosives. This was every day. Rather than some novel development, this will be a direct, unbidden return to something we worked very, very hard to get away from, something we were promised was over, and something for which thousands of very stubborn, dangerous people struck what many considered a highly improbable truce.

It is this effort to which thousands of Northern Irish people now owe their lives, to which tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands more can count among the living and healthy their siblings, their friends, their colleagues. This may not be at the forefront of minds in Carlisle or Cornwall or aboard the statesmanlike grandeur of a battlebus, but it is the lived reality of Northern Irish people. To stoke up these tensions risks sleepwalking out of a peace that was hard-fought and long considered unthinkable. To do so as a side effect of what appears to be, on its face, little more than a tussle for the leadership of a single political party with little-to-no presence in Northern Ireland seems distasteful in the extreme.

Having stating these facts to friends here in London, I’ve been touched by their sorrow for our plight but, for all their sympathy, it might still not have registered that our problems have a tradition of travelling to people in London and Dublin, in Birmingham and in Monaghan. If greater care is not given to the thoughts, aspirations and fears of Northern Irish people, and those still-present agents of chaos who would seek to use such discontent to their own violent ends, we risk losing a lot more than free use of bagpipes or pleasingly bendy bananas.

Westminster must listen to those who would bear the burden of Fortress Britain’s turrets near their homes or else, to borrow a phrase, Brexit will be a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family's security.

Séamas O'Reilly is a writer and musician. He tweets @shockproofbeats. His website is shocko.info.