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Sunday, 2 January 2011

In Malawi, gay support crucial in fight against Aids

Source: Street News Service

By Joe Opio

Baptist Chavuga wasn't among the horde of outraged Malawians that gathered outside the Blantyre courtroom to heckle Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza as the pair arrived to stand trial on charges of practicing homosexuality.

Chavuga, a 45-year old resident of Lilongwe, couldn't make it to Blantyre to vent his spleen.

But still, he admits to understanding the sentiment that fuelled those in front of the courtroom on that fateful day. "Homosexuality is unnatural and unacceptable," he rails when asked about the case that united Malawi, polarized Africa and horrified the international community. "Those two embarrassed us as a nation. I would say they got exactly what they deserved initially. It's a pity our president caved into donor pressure and released them."

For the record, Chimbalanga and Monjeza were arrested on Boxing Day in 2009, after the two participated in a traditional engagement ceremony. The twosome was sentenced to 14 years of hard labour in prison for "gross indecency" and "unnatural acts" by Judge Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa who commented: "I will give you a scaring sentence so that the public is protected from people like you, so that we are not tempted to emulate this horrendous example."

But after an international outcry, president Mutharika, flanked by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, announced a pardon, saying it was on "humanitarian grounds only."

It's a gesture that was perceived as an act of betrayal by many Malawians, as Chavuga was eager to remind whoever cared to listen even months later.

"The president has done a lot of good but releasing those two outcasts, against the wishes of the people, makes it seem like he was condoning the act," Chavuga sighs.

Malawi is a deeply conservative country and Chavuga's view is shared by the majority.

Which is why Vice-president Joyce Banda seemed like a politician intent on career suicide when she urged faith leaders to embrace same sex partners in the crusade against HIV/ AIDS.

Banda, a political pioneer unafraid of airing her opinion, made the appeal while officially opening a high-level religious leader's policy advocacy conference in Blantyre.

She stated that for Malawi to make significant strides in its anti-AIDS campaign, the country had to call an end to its state of self-denial and realize that same-sex liaisons were a reality.

"I am of the opinion that the Inter-Faith AIDS Association (MIAA) is strategically positioned to bring faith leaders together to debate on how faith response to HIV and AIDS should reposition itself to tackle the issue of homosexuality without necessarily compromising the moral integrity of faith institutions," Banda, a devout Christian told the gathered clergy, adding that gays and lesbians are vulnerable groups and that they need to be paid attention in the national response to HIV/AIDS.

Surprisingly, Banda's remarks didn't cause the expected storm of outrage.

Perhaps Malawi has become weary of the entire gay debate. Or maybe, just maybe, Malawi is slowly, reluctantly embracing the reality that Banda alluded to.

Otherwise, how would one explain the fact that no sooner had Banda uttered her remarks than the government adopted her position as its official stance after the Office of the President and Cabinet acknowledged that, without comprehensive gay involvement mechanisms, Malawi would be hitting blanks in the fight against HIV/AIDS?

"Gays are crucial in the fight," reaffirms Dr. Mary Shawa, the Principal Secretary for the Department of Nutrition, HIV and AIDS. "There's need for openness about one's sexual orientation among gays for government interventions to be tailor-made to carter for their needs. It is difficult for government to fully assist and recognize the homosexuals since those involved have not come in the open."

Shawa continues: "I am looking at it from the prevention point of view. The problem with homosexuals is that most of them are also married (to women and men), so much so that it becomes difficult to help them in such a situation."

Reverend Father MacDonald Sembereka, a respected Anglican Church leader, concurs with the government position and has been happy to add his voice to the cause.

Sembereka, who is the Executive Director of Malawi Network of Religious Leaders living or personally infected by HIV/AIDS, insists that it has long been a mistake not to incorporate same-sex liaisons in the fight against the deadly pandemic.

To Chavuga and the lot that stormed the Blantyre courtroom to join in the public humiliation of Chimbalanga and Monjeza, such utterances represent strange times indeed in Malawi.

But maybe strange and desperate measures are what Malawi needs to turn the tide in its struggle against the AIDS scourge, which has decimated the country and partly restricted its low life expectancy at just 43 years.

Despite a fall from 14.4 per cent in 2003 to 11.9 per cent cent in 2007, Malawi still bears one of the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates around the globe. Malawi's health care system, like many of its counterparts around Africa, has struggled to cope with the epidemic, exacerbating social problems like food security, human resource capacity and national defense.

UNAIDS last year estimated that almost a million out of 15 million Malawians are living with the virus, with prevalence significantly higher in urban areas than rural areas.

The situation becomes even more desperate when it comes to women.

A recent report revealed that approximately 600,000 women 15 years and older were living with HIV/AIDS, with the virus also accounting for approximately 90,000 pediatric infections.

On top of all that, Malawi plays host to over 650,000 AIDS orphans, most of whom are also HIV-positive

Not that Malawi's struggle against AIDS has been a tale of one setback after another.

The government has achieved a few hard-won victories over the years, with behavioural change credited as the architect of most of these.

"From the UN report that has just come, over the last year, Malawi has reduced mortality by 10 per cent," Dr. Shawa reveals. "What that means is that while 10 Malawians were dying of AIDS every hour 2004, nowadays that number has fallen to possibly one Malawian every hour. Plus, we now have over half a million people receiving free ARVs, up from 400 in 2004."

The same UN report cited Malawi as one of the countries where the prevalence rate of new infection among young people had declined by 25 per cent.

The Malawian government hopes for similar success in its bold decision to turn its attention to groups that are at most risk of contracting HIV and AIDS.

It's a decision that marks out Malawi as a continental pioneer, since, alongside homosexuals, the other groups include commercial sex workers and prisoners.

They might not be the most popular groups to embrace but as the government has belatedly come to realize, without engaging vulnerable outcasts, the fight against AIDS will forever remain as good as lost.

Morality and science have never been the coziest of bedfellows. But when it comes to the struggle against AIDS, morality has often been discovered to be an outright liability.

As Malawi takes firm steps towards acknowledging the significant role gay people have to play in the crusade against HIV, anti-AIDS activists are hoping that other African countries will clamber off their moral high horses and take after Malawi's lead.

When the Malawian government embraced gays, it was discovered that the epidemic had been silently sweeping through one of the country's closed societies with prevalence rates as high as 25 per cent.

Societal morals had left the gay people to fend for themselves, restricting their access to basic HIV prevention interventions as homosexuality remains a crime in Malawi, as it is around the rest of Africa.

But with the government's new all-enveloping policy, such hurdles are expected to be soon negotiated.

After all, openness and the erasure of stigma are tried, tested and proven measures in the campaign against AIDS all over the continent.

Countries that have traditionally handled the AIDS epidemic with mass sensitizations like Uganda have registered more successful campaigns against the virus while the reverse is true in countries like South Africa which have approached the disease with a 'denialist' attitude.

Malawi itself, a pioneer on openness with its incorporation of gays, needlessly suffered the brunt of the scourge, when under the rule of President Kamuzu Banda, little attention was paid to the escalating AIDS crisis.

Banda's puritanical beliefs made it very difficult for AIDS education and prevention schemes to be carried out, as public discussion of sexual matters was generally banned or censored, and HIV and AIDS were considered taboo subjects.

The whole mess was compounded by the Malawian Church's resistance to any AIDS prevention mechanisms that a reluctant government dared put in place.

Measures like condom use were resisted, and in a deeply religious nation, the effects of such uninformed resistance were devastating to the population.

Between 1985 and 1993, HIV prevalence amongst Malawian women tested at urban antenatal clinics increased from 2 per cent to 30 per cent.

Compare and contrast that with the period since Banda's ouster.

His successor, President Bakili Muluzi, on taking office, famously made a speech in which he publicly acknowledged that the country was undergoing a severe AIDS epidemic.

Muluzi emphasized the need for a unified response to the crisis and despite the damaging effects of Banda's legacy, Malawi has taken a firm step forward since then.

In 2004, President Muluzi, in a brutal exhibition of leading by example, revealed that his brother had died of AIDS three years previously and urged Malawians to challenge the stigma associated with AIDS.

"I have no apologies in making this publicly known to Malawians," he stated. "We should be open and break the silence about HIV/AIDS. The fight against the killer disease can only succeed if we break the barriers of silence, stigma and discrimination."

Muluzi could have been ripped his approach straight out of his Ugandan counterpart, President Yoweri Museveni's anti-AIDS manual.

When Museveni assumed power in Uganda in 1986, he was prudent enough to realize that, along with economic development, HIV/AIDS was one of the most pressing concerns facing his new government.

At a time when the disease was still only being talked about in whispers all over the world, Museveni got out his bullhorn and insisted on vociferously sensitizing Ugandans about the killer disease in their midst.

The resultant national AIDS policy formed the cornerstone upon which Uganda's much-celebrated anti-AIDS crusade was based.

Uganda's approach, which angered traditionalists while demystifying the myths around sex and AIDS, was pursued through sex education classes and a three-pronged campaign that urged abstinence, faithfulness and failing all that, the unfailing use of condoms.

Like Malawi's current acknowledgement of gays, Uganda's bold approach ruffled and still ruffles more than its fair share of conservative feathers throughout the country.

But, as one anti-AIDS slogan at the last World AIDS Day celebration ceremony put it: "Better Left Red With Embarrassment Than Dead."
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