Twenty-five year old Prince, whose surname is withheld for family reasons, is a transgender. At birth, he was assigned female sexual attributes, but feels more comfortable identifying himself as a male.
“This is something that I have felt all my life. I have affiliated myself to males despite my physical sexual attributes. I went to an all-girl school, but even the experience of associating with females was tough for me,” says Prince.
His growing up and association with males coupled with his preferences did not give away much, both to himself and peers. Life went on as usual.
“That was even before I understood things to do with sexual orientation,” he says. “My choices during role playing games leaned towards masculine. I was never a mother during Zawana, I would rather be a guard and stay outside.”
As years went by, Prince found himself on a self-discovery path that leaned toward masculinity. He says he is attracted to females. His dressing and carriage are the strong traits that complemented his male identify.
Prince says his friends circle and associations complemented the process of identifying his dominant character with the help of Look in-Look out (Li-Lo) method, a self-identification process to break the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) circle.
“Since that time, I dropped the female name given by my parents at birth,” she explains. “This is when I adopted the name Prince and I don’t want anyone to mention my old name.”
Although there are no studies on the population of transgender persons in Malawi, Prince is not alone. There are many people in the LGBTI group. They have sexual orientations that contradict what is perceived as normal sex identity. The orientations are either a product of choice or nature. For instance, transgender person (trans-man or trans-woman) is an individual who feels the opposite of herself.
Globally, including in Malawi, human rights activists have been advocating for the rights of LGBTIs. Nonetheless, these people continue to experience multiple barriers and discriminations. In Malawi, LGBTI, particularly the transgender persons suffer in silence as public service providers hardly recognise their sexual orientation.
Prince says they face challenges in accessing health care and during security check-up at check points such as immigration posts and entrances to venues. For several times, he has been forced to be on females queue ready to be searched and says this irritates him.
“I do not feel comfortable when I am forced to be searched by a female either at the airports or when entering public venues such as examination rooms. My experiences at the hospital have been dreadful.
“I recall when a nurse left me lying on a hospital bed to invite her friends just to see me because she noted that I was putting on a boxer which to them was so manly. In their eyes, I was somebody who was not conforming,” explains Prince.
This is not all, although he has successfully identified himself as a male, his travel documents such as passport and driver’s licence still recognises him as a female with his abandoned name. He is not alone. Malawi has no clear provisions for changing gender marks on travel documents based on transgender issues.
The only provision available that allows one to change name and gender marks on identity cards is the National Registration Act 13 of 2010. Section 21(1) reads: “Every registered person may, whenever he is satisfied that his appearance has changed so as to make it likely that his identity may be questioned, apply to the district registrar for the issue of a new card with a more recent photograph”.
This is backed by Section 43 of the Constitution which gives every person the right to procedurally fair administrative action and the right to written reasons, but for now, this only applies to national identity card. It remains a human right violation and stand against Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Goal Number 10 and 16, which advocate for reduced inequalities and peace, justice and strong institutions respectively.
In separate interviews, different service providers said their decisions on how to treat particular persons are guided by the law. Thus, transgender and other LGBTI have no option, but to abide by the law and maintain their identity on travel documents as recognised by their sexual attributes and be treated as any other in that group.
National Police deputy spokesperson Thomeck Nyaude says the laws are clear and will enforce them as they are.
“As per the current guidelines, we will continue to direct all those who were born females to be searched by our female officers regardless of what they feel,” he says.
Department of Immigration and Citizenship Services spokesperson Joseph Chauwa agrees: “We have not encountered serious and notable cases on how a particular individual identifies himself or herself, but it is an issue that needs to be looked into since our work is dictated by the law.”
Human rights activists are calling for a law review on LGBTI rights.
Centre for the Development of the People (Cedep) vice board chairperson Reverend Macdonald Sembereka asks government to act.
“Our fear is that this will get to a point where individuals in LGBTI groups will be denied services and victimised. We need law review,” he says.
Government continues to play hide and seek on the topic. The last time President Peter Mutharika spoke on the issue, he hinted on a referendum on same-sex affairs, but the dead silence on the topic promises no hope. Thus, LGBTIs will continue to suffer in silence.