Malawi: Courageous Move to Suspend Anti-Gay Laws

Nov 6, 2012 Human Rights Watch reports The Malawian government’s decision to suspend enforcement of laws that criminalize consensual same-sex conduct is the right thing to do, and should serve as an inspiration to other countries that criminalize homosexuality, Human Rights Watch said. During a radio debate last week with activists from Malawi’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, the justice minister announced a moratorium on arrests on the basis of the country’s colonial-era sodomy laws. 

Justice Minister Ralph Kasambara said the decision was based on concerns that Malawi’s anti-gay laws, which punish consensual same-sex conduct with prison sentences of up to 14 years for men and 5 years for women, may be unconstitutional. “The idea to issue a moratorium is that if we continue arresting and prosecuting people based on the said laws and later such laws are found to be unconstitutional it would be an embarrassment to government,” he said. The minister’s statement reflects a growing consensus that arrests on the basis of consensual same-sex conduct violate international human rights standards, as well as constitutional guarantees of equality in many countries in which laws nonetheless continue to discriminate against LGBT people. 

“Malawi has taken a bold step forward, putting respect for its own constitutional guarantees of equality front and center,” said Tiseke Kasambala, Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “No one should go to prison for consensual relations with someone of the same sex, and Malawi’s decision has given hope to thousands who risk prison sentences under such laws.”

The question of decriminalization of same-sex intimacy in Malawi has been debated since President Joyce Banda assumed power in April. Banda initially told parliament that she would take steps to decriminalize same-sex intimacy, but told reporters from international media in September that Malawians might not be ready for such a change, and suggested that members of parliament should take the question of decriminalization back to their constituencies. The justice minister’s call for a moratorium on arrests is a compromise position, which will permit parliament to debate possible legislative change. Continued