Malawi to hold referendum on gay marriage

Malawi’s President Mutharika

Malawi’s President Mutharika

In a surprising move, Malawi’s president has announced that the country’s citizens will vote on the issue of same-sex marriage.

The Nnyasa Times reports that President Peter Mutharika revealed on Tuesday that “contentious issues will be put to referendums”, including marriage equality.

“On the issue of gay marriages, again I have said in our DPP [Democratic Progressive Party] manifesto that we will leave that to the people…” Mutharika told the Malawian state broadcaster on Tuesday.

The news is certain to upset some human rights groups and activists as it’s generally argued that civil rights and equality issues should never be put up for a public vote. Same-sex marriage is also unlikely to be widely supported by the Malawian public.

A group called the “Yes campaign”, however, has told the Times that should the referendum take place it plans to hold mass Pride marches in support of marriage equality.

The group said that LGBT people “should be free to love, and have the right to commit to the person they love and to celebrate that love. Love does not discriminate, and neither should our laws.”

In April, the country effectively banned same-sex marriage through the adoption of the new Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Law which defines marriage as only being possible between people of the opposite sex.

The issue of LGBT rights in Malawi was thrust into the international spotlight in 2010 when Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza were sentenced to 14 years imprisonment after they got engaged in a traditional ceremony. They were eventually pardoned and released.

The status of LGBT people in the country remains mired in confusion. While male and female homosexuality is illegal, with penalties of up to 14-years imprisonment, the Secretary for Justice and Solicitor General Dr Janet Chikaya-Banda told a UN human rights committee last year that the authorities would not enforce the ban.

In March, Malawi’s Health Minister Jean Kalilani insisted, however, that the country will not end its gay sex ban. “It is still a crime to anyone engaging in the practice,” she said.

It is believed that three men – Amon Champyuni, Mathew Bello and Mussa Chiwisi – remain jailed on homosexuality charges in Malawi. They were sentenced to prison terms of between six and 12 years, with hard labour, by a magistrates’ court in 2011.

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