Joyce Banda

Browsing through headlines on LGBTQI politics in Africa on the internet can be somewhat redundant. Headlines over the past year have highlighted activity such as:

“Egypt Islamists Use Homophobia to Win Votes”

“Uganda: Police Close Down Gay Rights Workshop”

“Nigeria Criminalizes Gay Marriage”

And finally this week, we have one headline with a glimmer of hope: “Malawi takes bold move and suspends anti-gay laws.”

This week has welcomed perhaps only the second nation in Africa (the first being South Africa) that is addressing and combating legal human rights inequality towards LGBTQI persons. Malawi has temporarily suspended controversial same-sex laws until Malawians through Parliament make a decision on criminalizing same-sex relationships. Malawi’s first female president Joyce Banda has suggested that the ban will promote a discussion amongst Malawians to further contemplate and debate homosexuality.

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This is good – for Malawi, and the rest of Africa as it demonstrates that nations through legal doctrine can encourage a more healthy debate around sensitive issues such as LGBTQI rights. However, while the excitement is warranted we also need to be critical of these efforts to open up the conversation. We might even argue that leaving human rights legislation up to the public is a slightly questionable approaches as it opens up for debate what should not be debated: human rights in terms of safety and freedom of sexuality.

Over the past decade, Aid from the west has become inextricably linked to LGBTQI legislation in countries throughout Africa. In 2011 United Kingdom Prime Minister, David Cameron supported a policy emendation, which declared that homophobic countries in Africa would suffer funding fines if they continued to penalize gays and lesbians (specifically in reference to legislation in Ghana and Uganda). Malawi in particular has been navigating its relationship with donor nations such as Germany and the United States for repressive laws against sexual minorities.

Gay Pride African Pride

Many have criticized these policies as expressions of homonationalism: short for homonormative nationalism, and in short suggest that we’re in a new era of sexual excellence being deployed by the west as a method of politicking with other parts of the world. Jasbir Puar has written excellent pieces for The Guardian, which look at how homonationalism/pinkwashing is deployed by countries in the West as a testament of their sexual exceptionalism, compared to supposedly less liberal, advanced, and accepting societies in the developing world – say Malawi.

It would seem as though Joyce Banda’s is following her promise  to address legislation against homosexuality, and she should be recognized for that. It’s smart for Malawi since they were scheduled to lose a lot of aid earlier this year through said legislation, and even though it’s a controversial approach to LGBTQ population, we might also suggest that Banda’s method of problematizing these laws does not simply aim to appease western donors, but actively engages Malawian citizens, civil society, and the government in a conversation of how to discuss LGBTQ rights as a nation.

As the headlines on any news site demonstrate, there is a lot of work to be done throughout the continent that will address these repressive laws against LGBTQI persons as well as encourage a safe space for individuals to live without fear of intimidation and violence. But seriously, props to Malawi for taking a step forward in the right direction.

Story by OKA Contributor Maryam Kazeem

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