Malawian President Joyce Banda’s announcement that anti-homosexuality laws will be repealed as a matter of urgency has been widely welcomed by human rights activists around the world.
It is a stunning development in a state where just two years ago a gay couple were sentenced to over a decade in prison for declaring their love. Furthermore it raises the prospect of Malawi becoming a beacon of light on a continent where anti-homosexuality legislation is commonplace and only one state (South Africa) lends constitutional protections to its LGBT citizens.
Indeed the move presents a stark contrast to neighbouring Zimbabwe where President Mugabe regularly rants about gay people being “worse than pigs and dogs” and to Uganda, where law makers consistently flirt with new and harsher punishments for ‘homosexual acts’.
Of course there is a long way to go. President Banda’s statement of intent is just the first step in a legislative process that will inevitably be dogged by homophobic opponents amongst both the parliament and the public. And even once anti-homosexuality laws are repealed, implementation of equality is a whole different matter. One only needs to look towards European states such as Latvia, where legal protections and stable democratic systems have done little on the ground to adequately protect LGBT citizens from organised bigotry.
Still the progress appears genuine and Banda has clearly hit the ground running, by taking such a significant step just one month into her presidency. Furthermore her statement that “our traditional development partners…were uncomfortable with our bad laws” indicates a measure of success for the strategy of linking international aid to LGBT rights, utilised by donor states such as the UK and USA.
The move is also a further symbol of Banda’s seemingly broader progressive tendencies, already illustrated by her decision to use commercial flights rather than the luxurious presidential jet of her predecessor and, more significantly, her refusal to let indicted war criminal Omar Al-Bashir attend the Malawian-hosted African Union Summit this coming July. So far her stance appears daring, in-touch with the international community and appreciative of human rights considerations in at least some areas.
This combination of sensible external pressure and a liberal position from the presidency certainly looks promising for Malawi’s LGBT citizens – a community who have already waited far too long for their rights to be realised.