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Picking Up the Pieces in Malawi

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Human rights activists plot the path forward in the wake of the recent same-sex court case.

Before the outsized international human rights outcry. Before the world had even heard of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga. Before their chinkhoswe ceremony - akin to an engagement ceremony although more complex - landed these two in prison, then convicted for "indecent practices between males," and finally sentenced to 14 years of hard labor. Before the President of Malawi reluctantly pardoned the convicted parties. Before all of this, activists were acting up in Malawi.

"Our organization was born out of the need to fill major gaps in HIV service delivery," explains Gift Trapence, the director of the Lilongwe-based Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP), a human rights organization working on behalf of at-risk minority groups, including people in same-sex relationships, sex workers, and prisoners. When Monjeza and Chimbalanga were arrested in December, this relatively young organization, founded only in late 2005, was propelled to the forefront of a movement whose butterfly wing flaps would create maelstroms around the world. "Steven and Tiwonge's case has brought a lot of attention," modestly admits Trapence, whose organization has been balancing the pressures of high-level international advocacy with their need to ensure ongoing services to its target populations of marginalized individuals.

In addition to overseeing Monjeza and Chimbalanga's legal defense strategy, CEDEP was one of the few organizations willing to visit the two in prison to ensure their wellbeing. Dunker Kamba, CEDEP's administrator, traveled over 400 miles round-trip each week - and sometimes twice a week - for prison visits despite never having met the two prior to their arrest. "The first week after their arrest, it was difficult to visit them because the situation was hot," explains Kamba. "People were thinking, 'Who is the kind of person who would like to meet with these people?,' and the prison guards just told me that they weren't there." Eventually, however, Kamba was able to visit Monjeza and Chimbalanga, bringing them food, basic toiletries, and most importantly, he believes, hope and encouragement.

Before this headline case upended their activities, CEDEP was busy steadily building a portfolio of cutting-edge work for sexual minorities. The organization laid the groundwork for its HIV-prevention activities with a groundbreaking 2006 study on the knowledge, attitudes, and practices of Malawi's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) populations despite the overwhelmingly hidden nature of these groups and the complication that the concept of LGBT has little cultural currency in the country. In 2008, CEDEP contributed to another landmark piece of research on men who have sex with men, or MSM (an acronym common in HIV circles that seeks to emphasize behavior rather than identity), in Malawi. They discovered that the HIV rate in the MSM population was a jaw-dropping 21.4 percent, nearly double the prevalence rate of the general adult population. Over 95 percent of these men were unaware of their status.

CEDEP has used the findings from these pieces of research to raise awareness with men who have sex with men, running a resource center that provides these men with accurate prevention information. This work is not without its dangers, however. Earlier this year, two CEDEP staff members were arrested and briefly detained for allegedly distributing pornography. The pornography in question? HIV-prevention pamphlets tailored to men having sex with men.

Despite the risks, however, CEDEP has enjoyed some noteworthy successes, not the least of which is the recent pardon and release of Mojeza and Chambalanga. Another small victory was the inclusion of MSM as a target group in Malawi's recently developed national HIV prevention strategy, running through 2013. Also, Dr. Mary Shawa, the secretary for nutrition, HIV and AIDS in the president's office, expressed her support for a human rights approach to HIV-prevention that reached out to men in same-sex relationships following her attendance at a CEDEP-supported conference on HIV prevention with at-risk groups. Dr. Shawa was the first high-level government official to take such a stance and sparked large-scale debate.

That debate is still raging, of course, and CEDEP's battle remains steeply uphill. Despite the president's pardon, the effects of Monjeza and Chamblanga's case are likely to linger, driving the MSM community in Malawi even further underground. Indeed, in granting his pardon, President Bingu wa Mutharika made it clear that he was doing so only under international pressure, reiterating the illegality of Monjeza and Chambalanga's actions and his unhappiness with granting the pardon. "I do not agree with this," he said, adding, "these two... were wrong - totally wrong." Likewise, public attitudes remain firmly opposed to same-sex relationships. After the sentencing, for example, some crowd members outside the courthouse jeered for harsher sentences. Christian women representing a number of churches likewise recently joined hands to pray against "outbreaks of measles [and] homosexuality."

Internal to the organization, challenges face CEDEP as well. One of these is the inclusion of women who have same-sex relationships in its activities, a group that it has not currently reached. Monica Mbaru, the Africa regional coordinator for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, one of CEDEP's key partners, indicates that lesbian women in Malawi may face issues specific to women - like so-called "corrective rape" - that are not yet being addressed. "Although we cannot yet ascertain the scale of the problem," says Mbaru, "we know from some lesbian women in Malawi that they are subjected to corrective rape or other violence within their families. Their families believe that they have simply not found a proper man to induct them into having sex, so they start making advances, and these women close up and end up dying in their own spaces."

After months of the manic activity that accompanied Monjeza and Chambalanga's court case, CEDEP is taking a deep breath and taking stock. "Since December [when the two were arrested], we have been running up and down," says Trapence, "and of course we are proud of what we have achieved," noting that the contributions of the international human rights community were crucial in obtaining the presidential pardon. CEDEP, however, is keeping its eyes firmly on its goal of human rights for LGBT communities in Malawi. The organization has developed a three-year strategy that focuses on training, capacity building, and advocacy. CEDEP hopes to help media outlets, especially radio and television, to better cover LGBT issues, and they want to engage religious groups and parliamentarians on the issue as well. Its leaders also hope to ensure that LGBT rights are included in the activities of other human rights organizations and campaigns, building a stronger coalition. To that end, CEDEP has already put together a working group comprised of ten like-minded actors.

Continuing this work will require fortitude, a quality that CEDEP's team members have demonstrated in spades. "I'm doing this work out of the human rights heart that I have," explains Kamba. "Human rights are universal. I will always say that, even if they put me in jail."

This article is the first in a series profiling organizations and individuals in sub-Saharan Africa promoting the rights of sexual minorities. The next article in the series will feature the coalition of actors working together in Uganda. This article does not imply the sexual orientation or gender identity of any person mentioned herein.