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Wednesday, 29 December 2010

In Malawi, Tiwonge Chimbalanga in danger, Canada stonewalling on asylum?

By Paul Canning

This post has been updated. Please check back for further updates.

NB: apologies for earlier errors in descriptions of Tiwonge's gender. It has been confirmed that Tiwonge identifies as female.

Tiwonge Chimbalanga, one half of the couple arrested and imprisoned in Malawi on homosexuality charges, has been attacked and has been waiting three months to receive a visa so she can get asylum in Canada.

David Jones, an American volunteer with CEDEP-Malawi, a group which works with minorities including LGBTI in that country, reports for the Council for Global Equality's blog that CEDEP have been told that "quiet diplomacy" will secure the visa, however Gift Trapence, a gay CEDEP worker, told Maravi Post 1 October that "[her] passport is ready, [she] is just waiting to be issued with a visa for Canada." Jones told us that she has had a passport since September. The Maravi Post article also said that Tiwonge has secured three years material support for herself on moving to Canada - a likely requirement by Canadian authorities.
  • Update, 30 December: Jones tells us that the asylum process is being facilitated by the Global Justice Institute of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). He says that "the people working on this have no reason to believe that there is a delay on anyone's part as this process always takes some time." 
Harassment, danger

Jones says that "Tiwonge is still confined, and living with emotional trauma and physical danger."

When Tiwonge went to Malawi's business capital Blantyre to get her passport she stayed with a relative but a crowd gathered and circled the house, Jones says, and the relative asked her to leave. In Lilongwe, Malawi's capital where Tiwonge is living, she had malaria and needed to see a doctor. A threatening crowd gathered at the public health centre and she had to leave. Jones says this happened again when Tiwonge needed to have a tooth pulled, and she had to sneak into a private clinic at night.
"Tiwonge is hiding in a house in a neighborhood of Lilongwe. The house is also used as an office. The houses there are small. The bedrooms are the size of many walk-in closets in the US. There is no privacy and the strain on everyone is becoming enormous. Recently when staff were away one night Tiwonge walked the short distance to a rough commercial area where there are shops, a traditional market, men hanging around fires looking for piecework, petrol stations, a truck stop and several bars. She was recognized and seriously beaten, and had her only valuable possession stolen, her cell phone," says Jones.
Move to South Africa?

Jones says that because of the delays by Canada Tiwonge's supporters are considering moving her to South Africa for her safety. He says that SA organizations may be able to host her and provide support. Malawians have visa-free entry into South Africa, however only for a limited time and SA is currently experiencing a violent backlash against African immigration. Nevertheless, he believes that such a move "may even strengthen her case by highlighting the clear risk to her safety in Malawi".

But Professor of asylum law and LGBT Asylum News contributor Bruce Leimsidor warns against moving Tiwonge to South Africa. He said that although she can apply for asylum "and will almost certainly get it" moving there "may very well scuttle her chances for Canada, even if she does not request asylum there."
"Canada has taken a very strong stand on the 'safe third country' principle: if you pass through a country where you could have requested asylum - and don't - you will be returned there and not given asylum in Canada. So, if her advocates are thinking of sending her to S. Africa until Canadian asylum can be resolved, the best check with the Canadian authorities first."
American immigration lawyer, lesbian activist and former South African Melanie Nathan agrees with Leimsidor about a move to South Africa, adding that Tiwonge "may not be as safe as some would like to think in South Africa which has become a fend-for-yourself society when it comes to gay, lesbian and transgender people. The South African authorities have failed its own LGBT community and the crime rate in that country is hazardous to anyone moving there."

Instead Nathan recommends to Tiwonge's supporters to "have her living in the closest Canadian Embassy."

Human rights activist Peter Tatchell -  who helped organise prison visits and financial support for Tiwonge and her then partner during their many months of imprisonment - said that he has known for many months about her plight and that she has expressed anxiety about the long delays in getting Canadian asylum.
"My contacts have visited her regularly," he said. "They say she feels isolated and vulnerable. I have communicated this to the relevant people in Malawi and to international human rights groups. They are doing there best to assist Tiwo but it is taking too long. "

"I am fearful that one day she will be badly beaten or killed. I hope someone can hasten Tiwo's move to Canada, before any harm comes to her."

Chimbalanga, 21, and her now-estranged 27-year-old partner Steven Monjeza, were arrested on December 27 last year after performing a traditional public engagement ceremony (a chinkhoswe in Chichewa) at a lodge the former was working on in the outskirts of Blantyre.

The New York Times reported that:
"This public celebration drew dozens of uninvited guests. Some hooted and jeered, and at least one phoned a local newspaper, which published a front-page article about “gay lovebirds” partaking in “the first recorded public activity for homosexuals in the country.”
They received a 14 year 'hard labor' sentence but were later pardoned by Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika after extensive intentional media coverage and condemnation by governments including threats to withdraw aid funding. However in the pardon he said: "I don't want to hear anyone commenting on them. Nobody is authorised to comment on the gays. You will spoil things."

Mutharika's announcement came after he met with United Nations General Secretary Ban-Ki Moon. Mutharika dubbed Aunt Tiwo (another name by which Chimbalanga is known) as “stupid, demonic and useless” when he described her movement, body language and exaggerated facial expressions

In an interview with local TV after they were arrested Chimbalanga told the reporter that she "stood for her beliefs", saying according to a translation provided by Jimmy Kainja, who runs a Malawi affairs blog from London, that "he was within his right to chose his sexual orientation". After their release Chimbalanga remained unrepentant saying she would rather quit Malawi and live in a country where her status would be acceptable.

However following her release there has been a steady stream of threatening comments in Malawian online media as well as false reporting. Government Minister Patricia Kaliati, threatened them with rearrest. This led local supporters to immediately find them a safe house, however Steven did not take up the offer and was soon featured in local newspapers denouncing Chimbalanga and sporting a girlfriend.

HT: African Activist
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  1. Does Tiwonge identify as male or female? I noticed the switching gender pronouns. Is there a difference in Chichewa?

  2. My error. Thank you for pointing that out. It has been confirmed that Tiwonge identifies as female.

  3. As a Canadian, I certainly hope my government will act swiftly in granting a visa and asylum. It is truly the very least we can do.

  4. Does anybody have any recent news on Tiwo?


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