How attitudes towards homosexuality and gender non-conformity impact human rights in Malawi

Despite a decade-long contentious debate on whether Malawians are entitled to human rights based on sexual orientation and gender identity (LGBTQI+ rights), there was no nationally representative data about the opinions of Malawians on the matter. The absence of data meant that despite decision makers claiming to express the wishes of Malawians when implementing policies or adopting laws, usually to disadvantage LGBTQI+ persons, there was no way to verify such claims. A study establishes what Malawians think about sexual and gender non-conformity in order to inform public debates and decision making for the effective protection, promotion and fulfilment of LGBTQI+ rights in Malawi.

It is now a decade since a heated national debate ensued following a traditional wedding ceremony by Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, both legally identified as male, which resulted in their dramatic arrest on crimes under the penal code (Laws of Malawi, Penal Code 1930) inspired by the British colonial legacy criminalising ‘indecent practices’ between males. As in other parts of Africa, the debates are dominated by the questions of whether homosexuality is acceptable. Peculiar in the debates is people claiming to represent views of the society, for or against acceptability, despite the absence of scientific evidence on what the people really think. The ‘Under Wraps’ study is the first nationally representative survey aimed to fill this knowledge gap in Malawi.

The survey confirms common stereotypes and assumptions, but it also profoundly dispels some. For example, despite the prevalent claim that homosexuality is rare or incidental in Africa, we found that 3.5% of Malawians do not conform to heterosexual norms. This is higher than previous estimates of 2% found in HIV prevalence studies. While minority status is in itself an important basis for recognition and protection, those rejecting LGBTQI+ rights have justified their stand on the claim that the population affected is insignificant. The increased numbers thus strengthen the argument that progressive reforms would be an investment that benefits many.

While the study confirms that majority of the population, nearly two-thirds, do not yet envision legal protection for LGBT people, it overwhelmingly found that 96% of Malawians value that all people must be treated equally. The lack of support towards legal protection of LGBT rights can be explained by the lack of personal familiarity with non-conforming persons among Malawians. Only 26% of people surveyed personally know a transgender woman. In addition, only 5% know a lesbian. This suggests an association between not knowing a non-conforming person and negative attitudes.

Perception of sin was also influential in forming negative attitudes, as reflected in the high acceptance of intersex people (86% of Malawians will accept an intersex person) based on the perception that they are ‘born that way’ and therefore not personally liable for their non-conformity. In contrast, most Malawians reject homosexuals, particularly gay men. This finding shows that attitudes vary across particular types of non-conformity and suggest that the success of advocacy may vary depending on the issue. For example, strategic litigation for the rights of intersex people is likely to succeed due to positive attitudes. Equally important is that the data can be used to challenge any claims that Malawians summarily reject homosexuality, as contained in the judgement that found Chimbalanga and Monjeza guilty in 2010 following their traditional marriage ceremony a year earlier.

The study found that 87% of Malawians would support constitutional protection of LGBTQI+ people, yet the same number would not accept a family member who comes out as a member of the LGBTQI+ community. This contradiction illustrates the different perceptions between cultural values and formal human rights. The high negative attitudes towards having a member of the LGBTQI+ community as a family member illustrates the significance of compliance with cultural values in community settings.

Although Malawi is highly religious, the influence of religion on perception towards sexual and gender non-conformity is diverse. For example, while 80% believe that homosexual sex is wrong, one-third of Malawians believe that God loves those who do not conform. The use of religious doctrine to promote coexistence with gender and sexual non-conformity, as used in other African contexts such as South Africa, has proven useful for the recognition of LGBTQI+ rights. However, the extent to which such views can influence tolerance or violence in the Malawian context needs further research.

Furthermore, the terminology about sexual and gender non-conformity as well as human rights has a significant influence on public attitudes in Malawi. For example, ‘mathanyula’ is the Chichewa word for homosexuality, literally translating to anal sex between males. As the majority of Malawians regards male homosexuality as abominable, the perception of sexual and gender non-conformity deriving from the local language exclusively connoting anal sex triggers disgust or outrage. Similarly, when the local language ‘Igbt rights’ is (mis)understood as the right to practice anal sex, the public is likely not to find it acceptable. Offering more clarity on what is meant in relation to sexual or gender non-conformity and human rights is needed in order to eliminate ambiguity in the Chichewa language.


How attitudes towards homosexuality and gender non-conformity impact human rights in Malawi