Despite bellicose language towards donors and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on homosexuals, Malawi President Bingu wa MutharikaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s administration is accepting funds from donors to implement gay activities.
Our investigations also expose a disconnect between what political heads in government say about homosexuality in Malawi and what policymakers and technocrats are doing on the ground.
The United States (US) has confirmed that as part of its HIV and Aids bilateral package to Malawi, it has provided money to government for a survey that will determine the population of men who have sex with men (MSM). The Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC) is involved in the study.
The exact amount government has received for gay activities remains unclear, but the US Embassy in Lilongwe last week said over $70 million (about K11.7 billion at the current K167 exchange rate) of US Government bilateral funding to Malawi in 2010 went to the fight against HIV and Aids and that a fraction of that money went to MSM activities.
The yet-to-be adopted Malawi National HIV and Aids Strategic Plan for January 2012 to December 2016 (final draft), a government blue-print whose copy is in our possession, concedes that some population categories such as MSM and commercial sex workers (CSW) Ã¢â‚¬Å“are not targeted with comprehensive combination prevention interventions.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Yet, a limited sero-survey conducted among MSM in Blantyre in 2009 reported an HIV prevalence rate of 21.4 percent, according to the strategy.
It adds that more than 95 percent of MSM were unaware of their status and were less likely to be aware of the risks around unprotected anal sex.
The draft strategy also calls for the promotion of a legal and policy environment that protects, upholds and respects human rights and dignity of people living with HIV (PLHIV).
But this aspiration, while it could help formally integrate homosexuals into governmentÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s HIV and Aids programmes, will be a tough sell in a country that criminalises homosexuality.
Section 156 of the Penal Code states: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Any male person who, whether in public or private, commits any act of gross indecency with another male person, procures another male person to commit any act of gross indecency with him, attempts to procure the commission of any such act by any male person with himself or with another male shall be guilty of a felony and be liable to imprisonment for five years with or without corporal punishment.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Politically, that could be difficult too given the vituperation from the President, some senior ruling party politicians, traditional and religious leaders towards gay rights defenders.
The leaders have accused the activists of conspiring with Western donors to impose on Malawians foreign cultures such as same sex intercourse.
Mutharika also accuses some NGOs of influencing the countryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s traditional donors to withdraw aid because of the governmentÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s refusal to respect homosexuality as a human right.
But, in a case of double standards, government is accepting donor support to devise mechanisms of how to reach out to MSMs.
Just last week, an official from the OPCÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Department of Nutrition, HIV and Aids was among the Malawi delegation which attended a workshop on homosexuals in Johannesburg, South Africa, from February 14 to 16.
In addition, US Embassy public sections officer Benjamin Canavan confirmed in a questionnaire response that the US and other donors are currently supporting Capital Hill to conduct a national population size estimation of homosexuals within three urban settings and three rural districts.
Canavan said the survey was being done in Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mzuzu, Chikhwawa, Mangochi and Nkhata Bay.
He said the exercise was completed in Blantyre whereas in other areas, it is expected to end in October this year.
Canavan said through the US PresidentÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR), Washington was also funding training on population size estimation methods whose participants include the College of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, Centre of the Development of People (Cedep) and PSI.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“This will better inform how to reach MSM effectively. The US Government collaborates with the OPC and NAC [National Aids Commission] to support the national prevention response to reach high risk populations with evidence-based prevention strategies and interventions.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“OPC is planning to conduct a national situational analysis of Most-At-Risk Population in order to develop a national MARP strategy,Ã¢â‚¬Â he said.
Canavan added that Washington was also funding a pilot study of combination HIV prevention interventions for MSM in Malawi in a collaborative effort between the College of Medicine, CEDEP and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.
Cedep executive director Gift Trapence, whose organisation has been leading the minority rights campaign, said he was aware of government being funded to implement same sex programmes.
Trapence described the development as good, saying this would contribute to NGOsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ efforts to protect and give services to citizens regardless of their sexual orientation.
But on the administrationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s campaign discrediting NGOs over the same MSM funding, Trapence said: Ã¢â‚¬Å“This is total hypocrisy. That has always come from politicians who have used the gay issue as a propaganda tool while they know that some ministries within the same government are getting huge funding to implement HIV-related programmes targeting MSM.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“They should not cheat Malawians on MSM. Moreover, we have never antagonised them for getting such funding. This only shows that ministers who spend sleepless nights doing propaganda on MSM issue are ignorant of the policies within their own ministries.Ã¢â‚¬Â
UNAIDS country representative Patrick Brenny said although on a small scale, government and civil society partners were addressing issues of MSM through the countryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s HIV Prevention Strategy (2009-2013).
Brenny said the survey to establish the population of MSM would contribute to a better understanding of the dynamics of sexual minorities in Malawi and their risks and vulnerability to HIV infection.
On the laws that criminalise same sex relationships, Brenny said the UNÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s position remains that such laws are ill-advised and counter-productive because they violate fundamental rights to equality as guaranteed both in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Constitution of Malawi.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“The Government of Malawi has explicitly included MSM as a key population to be reached with HIV prevention programming as part of the overall national HIV prevention strategy. Both government and civil society partners have been rolling out innovative HIV prevention services though on a small-scale to reach this key population,Ã¢â‚¬Â he said.
The issue of homosexuality came to light in Malawi when a male coupleÃ¢â‚¬â€Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge ChimbalangaÃ¢â‚¬â€was arrested in December 2009 for staging a traditional engagement ceremony at Chatha in Chileka, Blantyre.
The two were convicted as charged and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment with hard labour. But Mutharika pardoned them after discussions with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the New State House in Lilongwe.
But the President made it clear that the pardon was on humanitarian grounds only, stressing that he remained opposed to homosexuality.
Following the withdrawal of aid by donors, chiefs and some religious leaders have been paraded on State broadcaster MBC TV to demonise NGOs for accepting money from donors Ã¢â‚¬Å“to impose a foreign culture on Malawians.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Recently, chiefs drawn nationwide to meet Mutharika at Sanjika Palace reiterated that Malawi cannot accept same sex marriages to please donors who are withholding aid to the country.
Principal Secretary in OPCÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Department of Nutrition, HIV and Aids,Ã‚Â Dr Mary Shawa, did not respond to a questionnaire she asked to be sent to her early this week.
But she is on record as having said that because the countryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s laws criminalise MSM, the issue is handled under multiple concurrent sexual partners when executing HIV and Aids activities.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Homosexuality in Malawi is illegal. Secondly, within our culture, people of the same sex marrying or being involved in sexual exploits is not normal. It is absolutely unacceptable,Ã¢â‚¬Â she said.
On whether the country needs to incorporate homosexuals in the fight against the pandemic, Shawa said it would be difficult because the law does not permit it.
Presidential spokesperson Dr Hetherwick Ntaba said in an interview on Wednesday that sanctioning the survey does not make homosexuality legal in the country.
Ntaba said the hypocrisy argument does not hold water because government also accepts that although prostitution is illegal in Malawi, Capital Hill ensures that they are not discriminated against in terms of health services.
He said the data collected from the survey would be used for HIV intervention programmes as is the case with prostitutes and convicted murderers who are reached with ARVs despite their illegal behaviour.
But the governmentÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s outreach to MSMs, albeit grudgingly, could also be a matter of survival. Malawi has in recent years struggled to qualify for Global Fund money because proposal evaluators said it was not doing enough to support the gay population.
That disqualification has drastically minimised HIV and Aids resources in the country, affecting much more people than the gay population.