Imprisoned Malawi Same-Sex Couple Speaks Out
Last December, a male same-sex couple in Malawi who celebrated their engagement to one another were arrested under that country’s "decency" laws. Ever since, Steven Monjeza, 26, and his fiancée, Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, have been held in prison in Blantyre, Malawi, and reportedly have been subjected to intrusive medical examinations to determine whether they have engaged in anal sex.
The men have been denied release on bail as they await their trial date on "indecency" charges, which are the provisions under which gays are typically prosecuted in the impoverished African nation. Their trial has been delayed several times. Earlier this month, is was reported that Monjeza had fallen ill; an April 19 EDGE story reported that the conditions at Chichiri prison, where the two are being held, are poor even by Malawi’s standards, and that the men are being underfed. (Their families have broken off contact and refuse to help.)
On a continent where anti-gay sentiment has been on the rise, Monjeza and Chimbalanga’s predicament is emblematic of the persecution that GLBT people there endure; Malawi supporters of the couple, and health activists working to educate the public about HIV, have been placed under arrest. In another African nation, Uganda, lawmakers are considering a bill that would impose the death sentence on gays in some cases.
But the men have remained committed to one another and have released a statement, according to an April 27 press release from OutRage!, a London-based LGBT advocacy organization.
"I love Steven so much," Chimbalanga said in the statement. "If people or the world cannot give me the chance and freedom to continue living with him as my lover, then I am better off to die here in prison. Freedom without him is useless and meaningless."
"We have come a long way and even if our family relatives are not happy, I will not and never stop loving Tiwonge," Monjeza said.
"We are thankful for the people who have rallied behind us during this difficult time. We are grateful to the people who visit and support us, which really makes us feel to be members of a human family; otherwise we would feel condemned," added Chimbalanga
According to the release, the statement was relayed from Chichiri Prison to OutRage! head Peter Tatchell. The press release included an address, Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, Prisoners, Chichiri Prison, P. O. Box 30117, Blantyre 3, Malawi, where well wishers can send correspondence to the imprisoned couple.
"All the support is well appreciated," said Monjeza. "We are grateful to everybody who is doing this for us. May people please continue the commendable job. Keep sending some small contribution. The money you send to us is so valuable and it makes such a huge difference between life and death, as prison life is very difficult. With the money we are able to buy some extra food to supplement our intake of the much needed vitamins and proteins."
"Steven and Tiwonge are showing immense fortitude and courage," said Tatchell. "They declared their love in a society where many people--not all--are very intolerant and homophobic. This was a very brave thing to do. Although suffering in prison, they are unbowed. They continue to maintain their love and affirm their human right to be treated with dignity and respect.
"They have taken a pioneering stand for the right to love," added Tatchell. "They love each other, have harmed no one and believe that love should not be a crime. It is nobody’s business what they do in the privacy of their own home. There is no evidence that they have committed any crime under Malawian law. They should not be on trial or in prison. Although not convicted of an offence, they have already spent four months behind bars.
"OutRage! is supporting Steven and Tiwonge. For the last three months, we have arranged extra food to supplement the men’s meager, poor quality prison rations," Tatchell continued. "We pay tribute to the other people and organizations who are giving legal and medical assistance to the detained men. This is a huge help. Steven and Tiwonge have asked me to communicate their appreciation."
The release noted that Amnesty International has "adopted" the couple as "Prisoners of Conscience." AI’s U.K. director, Kate Allen, said that, "Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga have committed no criminal offense," and added, "It is vital that as many people as possible join us in writing to the Malawi authorities calling on them to release the two men." The organization publicizes cases of human rights abuses against GLBTs and other minorities, and exerts pressure on governments to ease laws that single out and persecute minority groups.
The couple’s arrest has led to international protests and warnings that Malawi, which relies heavily on international aid, could risk alienating nations that provide crucially needed funds. However, the government has refused to yield in the case, with Information Minister Leckford Mwanza Thoto saying in January that Monjeza and Chimbalanga were "clearly breaking the laws of Malawi," and adding, "As [a] government we cannot interfere in the court process." Thoto went on to say, "We depend on our Western friends, yes, but we are a sovereign country."
The April 27 release reported that Manjeza’s health was no longer deteriorating, but said that he is still suffering from an undetermined affliction: "He is thin and weak and has jaundiced eyes, according to an eye-witness who saw him last weekend," the release said. But the couple remains hopeful that international pressure will eventually lead to "our release and the dropping of charges by the Malawi government."