The Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) has called for the country’s homosexuality ban to be suspended while it conducts a public inquiry on the issue.
In November 2016, the Solicitor General, Dr. Jane L. Banda, wrote to the MHRC on behalf of the government asking the commission to hold an investigation into LGBT equality.
According to Banda, the issue of gay rights “has been outstanding for Malawi, both at the local level and international scene”. She told the commission that the government believes that the findings of the public inquiry would help it “to determine the way forward”.
In a statement, the MHRC confirmed it would undertake the inquiry, which aims to “establish the depth and level of understanding of the public on LGBTI people as well as LGBTI issues and rights”.
The inquiry will also try to assess the fears that the public might have about LGBTI people and establish what kind of violence, abuse and discrimination the LGBTI community experiences.
Notably, the MHRC said it will ask the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs to submit a bill to parliament to suspend Sections 153 and 156 of the Penal Code until the public inquiry is finalised. These provisions currently outlaw homosexuality in Malawi with penalties of up to 14 years in prison.
In 2015, Justice Minister Samuel Tembenu announced a moratorium on the arrest of Malawians for having gay sex. The High Court in Mzuzu, however, ruled that the government could not suspend laws and that only parliament may do so.
The Evangelical Association of Malawi (EAM) has rejected the MHRC’s public inquiry and said in a submission to the commission that the only acceptable approach to possibly decriminalising homosexuality was through a referendum, reports Nyasa Times.
It argues that any attempt to repeal the anti-gay laws “without consulting Malawians through a referendum is not only wrong and unacceptable but also a gross violation of the constitution”.
The EAM, which is deeply opposed to LGBT equality, further said that instead of a bill to suspend the anti-gay laws, the government should rather introduce one to hold the referendum.
The organisation is likely well aware that Malawians are among the least tolerant people in Africa towards the LGBTI community, and would likely vote against decriminalisation. A 2016 Afrobarometer survey found that just 6% of Malawians would be comfortable with having gay neighbours.
LGBTI rights groups almost universally reject the idea of putting any human rights to a public vote through a referendum.