LGBT CAMPAIGN SUFFERS SETBACK DUE TO GOVERNMENT’S GROWING UNPOPULARITY
By Harold Williams, Vice Chairman, ASH
ASH runs on the fumes from the oxidation of worthless copper coins. That is to say that we have no funds but do what we can with what little we have. We have made an approach to a foreign embassy for funding so that we can run seminars based on the showing of the 60 minute BBC film “The making of me” – documenting gay actor John Barryman’s journey to find out why he is gay. Our approach has yet to be formalised – but we live in hope.
Over the years, both prior to my joining the humanist movement and since, a number of my op-ed articles on the issues have been published in the local press. The arguments that we have to make do not change but neither do the arguments made against decriminalising homosexual acts viz. religion, culture, unnatural act, pro-creation. To break down such prejudicial responses may take almost forever!
I am convinced that most of my fellow Malawians when presented with the facts in an understandable manner and in an environment conducive to reflective thought who may have never knowingly met a gay person would be responsive to a film where such a personable character as John Barryman visually and candidly presents a balanced picture of the situation that LGBT people find themselves in. The film, with about nine identifiable segments, lends itself to natural breaks for discussion on the preceding section. We will target media, legislators, police, clergy and civil society in the hope that we may recruit sympathy to our cause of some of these influential opinion formers.
Malawi relies to a very large extent on aid inflows mainly from Western nations. The main donor nations understand that for a country such as Malawi to develop it is necessary that the basic concepts of good governance and respect for human rights, in accordance with Malawi’s rights-based Constitution, should be strengthened. Concerns from within Malawi on the deteriorating situation have been expressed by civil society organisations, the very strong churches, the Malawi Law Society, media bodies, academia, the Malawi Human Rights Commission (a constitutional independent body) and most callers to current affairs programmes on radio. In the face of government and presidential intransigency, threats of state instigated violence, abuse of police powers, vituperative personal attacks on state controlled radio and TV (there are no private TV stations) and statements made by Government spokespersons, dissatisfaction is growing.
Into this universal mix comes the LGBT issue. Led by the Royal Norwegian Government which has cut back aid, widespread criticism by the donor nations has been made of Malawi’s stance on the continuing criminalisation of homosexual acts including the recent criminalisation (in the name of gender equality!) of the addition of Lesbian sex. As far as ASH is concerned this intercession, whilst well motivated, sets back the fight for ‘gay’ rights in Malawi.
The LGBT issue is only a minor part of the overall governance/rights problem yet it is an issue where the majority of the population sympathises with the Government’s stance. And Government is using this is their main and, perhaps, only effective weapon in their arsenal to obscure the general issue.
A recent news item under the heading “Govt accuses activists of milking donors” reports that three very senior Government officials have publicly accused human rights activists of ‘gold digging’ to obtain funding to promote ‘un-Malawian practices like same-sex relationships.’ Hetherwick Ntaba, the official Government spokesperson, even went as far as to liken ‘ the sourcing of funds from the Norwegian Embassy for gay rights fights to getting money from Al Qaeda terrorist movement.’ The usual ‘stop-debate’ favourites of ‘.. the country’s culture and religious beliefs’ were brought into play. He went on to say that it is wrong to solicit funding from any government for purposes of promoting human rights adding that ‘.. gay rights should not be tolerated.’ NO DEBATE!
And now the Speaker of the National Assembly, Henry Chimunthu Banda, has criticised donor aid conditions to poor countries saying that conditions often negatively affect development. As a general statement it could be the basis for reasonable debate. However, the donors are, in the main, reflecting the sentiments of the Malawi public. He cited the tendency of the donors to single out ‘ .. one isolated incident as the determining factor for the whole aid package.’ Yet it is the Speaker who singled out the example of the reaction of the donor community to Malawi’s homosexuality law. This is dishonest of the Speaker. He is playing to the gallery, fishing for public sympathy, yet the representatives in Malawi of the main donor nations signed a joint communiqué which we posted to an earlier blog clearly spelling out the multiple causes for concern.
The biggest opponents of ‘gay’ rights remain the churches. By putting their reactions on a clearly dogmatic basis rather than on the secular principles of our Constitution, they are unwittingly weakening their general position on the other human rights issues on which they have been very critical of Government and the President.
The Malawi Council of Churches has just taken out a full page advertisement in the local press headed “Stand on Homosexuality” in which all of the usual Christian arguments are stated. The statement is far too long for us to reproduce here. Nevertheless, we note a recent argument that African government’s and churches are now using to bolster their stand viz. that the United Nations Declaration on sexual orientation and gender identity was rejected because only a few countries supported it. This is an invalid proof from numbers. What the churches fail to reveal is the identity of the opposing nations – nations which in the main have histories of repression of human rights and with whom we would generally not wish to be identified.
We at ASH will continue in our efforts to bring sanity to the debate. We are not concerned at Government’s attempts to vilify those who uphold ‘gay’ or any other rights. Should we fail to obtain funding from donor agencies in Malawi, we hope that our colleagues in the Humanist movement will be able to assist us in identifying a source of funds for a campaign that does not meet with much public sympathy in Malawi. We will keep you informed.