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Double Trouble for Malawi's LGBTQI+ Community

Khamula - we are open to discussions Khamula - we are open to discussions - pic by DoDMA

Gender and sexual minorities in Malawi say discrimination is a major factor making it hard for them to benefit from the government’s social protection programs after Cyclone Freddy devastated the southern region of the country in March 2023.

Some of the hardest hit districts were Blantyre, Chiradzulu, Zomba, Mulanje, Phalombe, Chikwawa and Nsanje where 676 people were killed, 530 missing and an estimated 659,000 displaced.

Mambo (not his real name), a 34-year-old gay man from the densely populated Mbayani township in Blantyre, expressed worry that discrimination against LGBTQI+ people is worsening in Malawi.

He said that even before the cyclone it was difficult for him to benefit from social protection programs, including the cash subsidies government and development partners give to vulnerable families.

When Cyclone Freddy destroyed his house in March this year, he said he received no support from the government despite being promised roofing materials. 

“My house was damaged; household items and maize flour were soaked. I am not employed; I rely on piece work for survival. To make matters worse, I have even been left out in the ongoing social protection initiative where the government is distributing cash (cash transfer) aimed at making people recover from the cyclone.

“It is very hard to recover from the effects of Cyclone Freddy considering that the country is also facing serious economic challenges fueled by the recent 44 percent devaluation of the local currency, which has made life unbearable for me as the cost of living has now increased,” Mambo added.

Mambo identifies as gay but is married to a woman with three children. He said community leaders who help identify beneficiaries of disaster support have sidelined him from benefiting from relief items and cash transfers.

“The committee does not include me on grounds that I am a gay and [they assume] I have a lot of money,” he explained, adding that he is still struggling to make ends meet.

Mambo said his wife knows he is gay and is supportive, though his parents who stay in Zomba are not aware of his sexual orientation.

When Zodiak approached community committee leaders in Chirimba and Mbayani townships seeking response to Mambo’s discrimination claims, they referred us to the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DODMA), saying they do not directly talk to the media on issues of disasters.

Mambo’s discrimination claims were shared by Ayanda (not her real name), a transgender woman from Chirimba in Blantyre. Ayanda also said she did not receive any government support when her house was damaged by the cyclone.

“Those committee members who were registering the cyclone victims skipped my house saying I have a lot of money because I am transgender woman and that I get a lot of funding from non-governmental organizations, yet this is not the case,” explained Ayanda.

 She added that since the cyclone it has been even harder for her to get medical care including preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP) from camps and nearby public health facilities and that she only gets such assistance from private hospitals and the Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP), a local rights organization.

Ayanda suggests that the government through DODMA should deliberately establish a special package to support the LGBTQI+ community in times of disaster.

“Looking at the increased discrimination and all sorts of insults that I face at Chirimba township for being a transgender woman, I feel DODMA should be working with rights organizations like CEDEP to reach out to us with support when disasters occur,” said Ayanda.

She further explained that people should understand that she was born like this and that even her parents accepted and now respect her gender identity.

“I was born male, but I have had more feelings of a woman since my childhood. I feel bad when people call me all sorts of nasty names like being a satanic, lazy person and running away for responsibilities,” she explained.

Aisha (not her real name), a 36-year-old lesbian woman, narrated the ordeal when her house in Chirimba township was destroyed by the cyclone.

 “Many men know that I am not financially stable, so they were mocking me on where I will get money to rehabilitate my house,” she said.

 Aisha told us that she has never benefited from the government’s social protection initiatives although people in her area are now accessing cash transfers to cushion them from the effects of the cyclone.

“I urge the government to assist us, for we are also citizens of Malawi," Aisha said. Beyond disaster relief, Aisha said she normally seeks medical assistance at CEDEP and Pakachere Institute of Health and Communication offices where she finds dignity rather than at public hospitals where she is met with discrimination.

Gender and sexual minorities are considered “key populations” in the fight against HIV, meaning they are among the highest risk of contracting and transmitting HIV and the least access to prevention, care, and treatment services due to stigma or discrimination.

Although Malawi has a National Strategic Plan 2020-2025 to ensure key populations receive better health services related to HIV/AIDS, the country still has repressive laws that criminalize same-sex relations.

 Sections 153 and 156 of Malawi’s penal code criminalize same-sex sexual conduct among men, and those convicted face up to 14 years imprisonment, with or without corporal punishment.

Apart from the repressive laws, Dr. Godfrey Kangaude, a sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) activist, cites religious discrimination as a major challenge that makes the LGBTQI+ community members suffer in various communities.

“It is worrisome that people use religion to show anger, hatred and animosity against homosexuals, yet we say we are a religious country,” said Dr Kangaude.

He added that there is a need to show love and understanding and to co-exist with gender and sexual minorities in order to create a better society for all citizens.

DODMA Spokesperson Chipiriro Khamula says the department is ready to engage various organizations or stakeholders including minority groups to make sure that no one is left behind in the wake of building national resilience to disasters.

“First and foremost, we provide relief assistance through councils, and they are guided by the humanitarian principles. Aid must be provided on the basis of need and without any kind of discrimination. As a department, we are very much open to discussions,” said Khamula.

According to the Tropical Cyclone Freddy Post Disaster Needs Assessment Report, more than 2.2 million people were affected by Cyclone Freddy in the southern region of Malawi, of which 659,278 people were displaced.

Meanwhile, the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) is coming up with a 2024-2028 strategic plan with a theme entitled “Human Rights for All.” 

MHRC Executive Secretary Habiba Osman says the plan comes in the wake of recent developments in the promotion and protection of human rights, which include access to information and gender equality.

“We need to address the violation of rights related to increases in disinformation, climate change, and minority rights, just to mention a few,” Osman said.

She then called for action to defend the rights of the marginalized, to challenge injustice, and to champion calls for freedom, equality and justice for all.

“May we continue our collective journey towards a world where human rights are a birth right of every citizen,” Osman said.

She added that the strategic plan is built and aligned with the Malawi vision 2063, the AU Agenda, the sustainable Development Goals and the international Bill of Rights.

Osman then asked all gender and sexual minorities in Malawi to report any violations or abuses to the commission for them to investigate and take appropriate action.

“Please take note that our doors are open. Report any forms of violations for us to take swift actions, for every citizen has the right to access social services from the government without any forms of discrimination,” said Osman.

Meanwhile, some inside sources have confided in Zodiak that there are plans to conduct a study in 2024, which will include a national population size estimate of Malawi’s LGBTIQ+ community to have reliable data.

The sources say the last population size estimate was done in 2012 targeting eight districts including Nkhata-bay, Lilongwe, Blantyre, Mzuzu, Mulanje and Chikwawa.

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