Prosecute or protect? The law and policing of gay people in Malawi

Superintendent Horace Chabuka, Blantyre’s community policing coordinator, used to think that gay people should not be accepted. But thanks to a small, but ambitious, community organisation in Malawi he has become a key ally in the fight for the protection of sexual minorities.

<p>Superintendent Horace Chabuka, Blantyre&rsquo;s community policing coordinator,&nbsp;used to think that gay people should not be accepted. But thanks to a small, but ambitious, community organisation in Malawi he has become a key ally in the fight for the protection of sexual minorities.</p>Superintendent Horace Chabuka has become a key ally in the fight for the protection of sexual minorities 
© Gemma Taylor for International HIV/AIDS Alliance

“I heard about homosexuality after serving in the police force for about 17 years. In all those years I’d never heard about it happening in our culture. I was not happy about it, because my [Catholic] background doesn’t accept it,” says Chabuka. “I asked myself if we should accept this, and my answer was no.”

When a country has homophobic laws, it is unsurprising that homophobia would be rife within the police force. It also explains why, in a such a conservative environment, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT)will view the police with fear and suspicion, rather than as a source of protection.

Transgender people face prejudice from police

Kaluso, a 28-year-old transgender woman, recalls being followed and attacked during a night out along with her friends, a few years back. They were targeted because they stood out as LGBT people. “When I went to the police, I was further victimised,” she says.

Alex Kaomba, programme manager for Community Health Rights Advocacy (CHeRA), says: “Even if it’s not a homophobic crime, if you’re gay you don’t get the same response as everyone else.”

“If someone burns my house and I go to report the matter,” he says, “my sexual orientation has nothing to do with what’s happened, but because of attitudes within the police force, crimes can go un-investigated.”

CHeRA is working to put an end to the criminalisation and victimisation of LGBT people in Malawi. Perhaps one of its most impressive achievements since it started operating in 2016 is turning the superintendent into an ally who will now openly discuss the issues affecting LGBT people. This change came about after CHeRA started engaging him in conversations and workshops.

“After attending discussions with CHeRA and CEDEP, I realised we cannot deny [that homosexuality exists], otherwise, at the end of the day, we will lose more lives,” says Chabuka. “People will not come forward to get services, for sexual health or HIV for example, or it might be that they have been attacked and will not ask the police to assist them.”

It’s not just a turnaround in attitude, but a personal commitment to act. He has publicly provided his direct contact details so any member of the LGBT community can contact him first if they have an issue, and he will refer them to someone he knows is equipped to deal with the case. Chabuka has a clear message for all LGBT people in Blanytre: “If someone has violated your rights, report it.”

Changing attitudes in the police force

Kaluso, is one of the people who has the superintendent’s number. Thinking back to the attack, she says: “It would be different if it happened now, I’d know where to go.” Shy Amanda, a 29-year-old transgender woman, is also relieved it’s changed: “If the police can arrest us, where else can we go?” Both women receive support from CHeRA and attended the workshop with police officers.

Currently, although homosexuality is criminalised under anti-gay provisions within the penal code, no-one should be being arrested in Malawi on account of their sexuality. All arrests have been suspended while a public enquiry takes place. “Anyway, who is the complainant?” asks Chabuka, making the point that there is no victim within consensual relationships.“They are not doing anything wrong.”

The Government of Malawi has asked the Malawi Human Rights Commission to carry out the enquiry, and to see if a public referendum can be held. CHeRA are dead set against a referendum, advocating for that to be dropped. “Imagine, exposing issues of human rights to a referendum,” says Kaomba, “it becomes pre-determined, it’s a futile exercise.” Malawi’s own constitution prohibits discrimination of any form, so LGBT rights should be protected based on that pillar, not determined by a public vote.

Advocating for LGBT human rights

CHeRA is targeting local parliamentarians across the country who can feed into national debate. The local level candidates may be people who have previously aired homophobic views themselves, especially around campaign time, when being vocally anti-gay can win you votes. However, that’s exactly why they’re a key group to target, where there’s a lot to change, there’s a lot to gain.

CHeRA are showing them the connection between homophobia and increased rates of HIV, because of stigma and discrimination. “We ask them to read and understand what the HIV prevention strategy is saying about key populations affected by HIV and the role they can play in reducing risk,” says Kaomba. “We also urge them not to erode the gains that have been made so far.”

If the anti-gay law can be permanently scrapped the gains are set to be much higher. In the meantime, the police force in Blantyre is not waiting for the law to catch up, and CHeRA has more workshops planned nationwide during 2018 so the tolerance Superintendent Chabuka expresses can be reflected across the country.

Kaluso says: “Sometimes you have fight for something without seeing the fruits. Often, it will be someone who comes after you that will see them.” However, CHeRA’s determination, clever targeting, and expertise shows that sometimes you can see the fruits pretty quickly.

CHeRA has been assisted by a grant from the Rapid Response Fund, which is managed by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance and funded by the Elton John AIDS Foundation. The Fund makes grants to LGBT and MSM organisations so they can carry out urgent work to alleviate the stigma, discrimination and violence that threaten provision, access and uptake of HIV services for MSM and LGBT people.