By Elisabeth Sewall
The New York Times reported the alarming and deeply troubling news that Malawi sentenced Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, a gay couple, to 14 years in prison and hard labor. The sentence was handed down as a punishment after the couple decided to throw a party to celebrate their engagement — an event that made front-page headlines in local news publications there. The couple was arrested two days later.
Human rights organizations have widely condemned this decision as a violation of the couple’s basic and fundamental human rights. As the Times article pointed out, homosexuality is illegal in at least 37 African countries, including Malawi. After the latest good news coming out of Uganda, where an anti-homosexuality bill is likely to be withdrawn from Parliament, this is a sad reminder that LGBT people still face severe persecution and human rights violations in other African countries and beyond.
There are options for people in countries with draconian laws against homosexuality. LGBT people who have a well-founded fear of persecution in their native country due to their sexual orientation or gender identity may be eligible for asylum in the US and other countries.
Every year, PHR’s Asylum Network volunteers help people just like Tiwonge and Steven — people whose human rights have been violated simply because they defy cultural norms — to change their lives by gaining safe haven from their persecutors.
Asylum claims made on the basis of sexual or gender-based persecution, however, face major obstacles, making the powerful evidence provided by health professionals all the more crucial. Health professionals in the US can help fight injustices and gross human rights violations committed worldwide by supporting the efforts of those being persecuted to gain asylum in the US.
Take the case of J.C., an asylum seeker from Jamaica whose life was threatened because of his sexual orientation and his HIV+ status. He and his friends were attacked for being gay, and he had been forced to be closeted his entire life. He was diagnosed with Major Depression and panic attacks. Thanks in part to the powerful evidence provided by a psychiatrist in the Asylum Network, J.C. was granted asylum this year, giving him the chance to start a new life and recover in the US.