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Friday, 22 January 2010

Malawi’s homophobia continues as powerful minister expels suspected lesbian

Source: Nyasa Times - January 22

A Malawian minister has expelled a woman suspected to be lesbian from her constituency, saying she does not want her to “corrupt morals of my young constituents”.

Patricia Kaliati, the free-speaking Minister of Women and Child Development, told AP Thursday 42-year-old Nellie Somanje, a businesswoman, was told to leave the small town of Mkando in the southern district of Mulanje to protect vulnerable children in the area.

Kaliati, Director of Women in President Bingu wa Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is also a Member of Parliament for the area, some 60 kilometres from the commercial capital, Blantyre.

“Yes, Somanje is persona non grata here,” she said in a telephone interview. “She must leave the area in order to protect vulnerable girls here.”

Somanje has since relocated to her original home in the southern lakeshore resort district of Mangochi.

Somanje’s suspected lesbianism came to light when she was arrested in November last year after two girls in her employ – aged 14 and 15 – complained that their boss was forcefully having sex with them.

She was charged with gross indecency, a felony that can attract up to 14 years in jail.

She was immediately released on bail.

But during trial Somanje denied the charges, telling presiding Mulanje Second Grade Magistrate Lameck Mkwapatira that the two girls voluntarily asked her to be applying caster oil – locally known as nsatsi – on their private parts which traditionalists believe improves a woman’s sexual vitality and prowess.

“I used to apply on them the caster oil twice daily at their request,” she told the court.

Magistrate Mkwapatira agreed with her that the act was indeed consentual and went ahead to acquit the businesswoman citing lack of evidence from the state to prove that Somanje was a lesbian or was indeed forcefully having carnal knowledge of the two girls.

“In the absence of a medical report to prove the sexual acts this court is compelled to acquit the accused,” read court records reported widely in Malawi’s press Thursday. “The two young girls were living with the accused since 2001 in Mangochi until they moved to Mulanje. They complained because they wanted to leave her.”

But the ruling has not gone down with Kaliati who proceeded to order the expulsion of Somanje from her area.

“The laws forbid women from having sex with fellow women,” she said.

“What the Mulanje Magistrates’ Court did in legally wrong. When we have a court we expect it to protect the rights of the vulnerable.”

Kaliati said Magistrate Mkwapatira’s ruling may have a negative impact on the on-going high-profile case in the Blantyre Chief Resident Magistrates’ court where Malawi’s first openly gay men are being tried on three counts of gross indecency and practicing unnatural acts between males.

That case, involving 26-year-old Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20 – who had a traditional public engagement on December 26 ahead of their planned wedding in the new year – is coming up for continuing hearing on Monday, January 25. They have remained in jail since their arrest on December 27.

Minister Kaliati, known for her no-holds-all-barred pull-out-all-the-stops manner of speech, said the Mulanje ruling will have a bad precedent on the Monjeza-Chimbalanga case.

“I am ordering my ministry to appeal the ruling because it has the potential of promoting homosexuality which is not only immoral but illegal in Malawi,” she said.

But Malawi’s two influential dailies have since condemned the minister for lambasting the judiciary, saying her remarks undermine the independence of the judiciary.

“The judiciary is an independent arm of government which makes decisions based on evidence tendered in court,” reads an editorial in The Nation edition of Thursday. “The magistrate in the Mulanje case said the State did not provide compelling evidence to back its charges.”

On the other hand, the Daily Times Thursday’s editorial also stated that: “Careless public outbursts (by politicians) will tempt people to lose trust in the judiciary, which could have negative repercussions on the administration of justice in this country”.

Malawi is largely a conservative society with the majority of the 13.1 million people frowning upon homosexuality, let alone same-sex marriages. Church leaders even liken homosexuality to satanism.

However, research by gay rights activists indicate that homosexual acts are increasingly taking place underground and in the country’s prisons.

The arrest of the first openly gay men over Christmas has rekindled the debate with activists challenging authorities to expunge homophobic laws off the statute books as they contradict the spirit of the new Constitution adopted in 1995 whose Bill of Rights states that no one shall be descriminated against in Malawi on the basis of their sexual orientation.
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