For a few hours over the weekend the streets of Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, were covered in rainbows, as about 50 members of the country’s persecuted LBGTQ+ community took part in the country’s first Pride parade.
The risks to those who took part are high. Homosexuality remains illegal in Malawi, and those who identify as anything other than heterosexual face arrest and imprisonment.
Those on the streets of Lilongwe on Saturday, however, expressed joy that in a year during which events had been cancelled across the world, their parade was at last taking place during annual Pride month.
Andreas, 29, said it was a huge moment for his community as he danced to the music and raised a placard above his head. “I feel so happy to be part of this,” he said. “To be a gay in Malawi is tough and it takes a lot of guts to be open like I am. I have been through a lot, including insults and discrimination. I’m lucky that I have a loving family which accepted me the way I am.”
Marchers donned shirts with rainbow colours and emblazoned with words such as “embracing our queerness”, “pride unites world”, “love first” and “Malawi is for us too”, as they danced and chanted “Viva LGBTI!”. They marched largely alone through quiet streets. No crowds lined the pavements, though a few passing cars sounded their horns in support.
Despite the celebration, most of those taking part wore masks, not because of Covid-19 but for fear of revealing their identities in a country where a conviction for homosexuality can lead to 14 years in jail for men and five for women.
Many of those on the march said they still faced stigma and persecution and lived their lives in a state of fear. They shared stories of being denied housing, blackmailed by police, bullied in school, rejected by their families and forced to hide their sexuality in public.
Chrispine, 30, faced reprisals at his school and church when his sexuality was discovered and was thrown out of his family home at 18.
“It was hard for me because no one wanted to associate with me. I was really depressed,” he said. “Even in the political space I am not represented and am not allowed to have my say. I think this is historic and the moment we have been longing for. I know in the past we would not be able to do this.”
The organisers of Malawi Pride used the parade to deliver a petition addressed to the president calling on the government to repeal laws that criminalise same-sex unions.
“The community is here to seek dialogue with the government and address issues affecting us,” said Eric Sambisa, who leads the Nyasa Rainbow Alliance. “The government says it’s implementing policies that represent people, but why should they ignore us ?”
Successive governments have pledged to reform the country’s legislation on homosexuality. President Joyce Banda promised change in 2012 and temporarily suspended the sentencing of those arrested. Her successor, Peter Mutharika, said he wanted to put the question of legalising homosexuality to a referendum.
The current justice minister, Titus Mvalo, said the laws remained in place but that the Malawi Human Rights Commission would carry out a study to see whether change was required.
Martha Chijozi, who represented the commission at the parade, said it was within its mandate to protect the rights of everyone, including those from sexual minorities.
She said she agreed with the Nyasa Rainbow Alliance that the issue of sexual rights should not be the subject of a study or referendum.
“We know there are so many misconceptions about the LGBTI community. They are human beings and deserve rights like any other person. The community suffer a lot of discrimination that’s why we have a specific focus on raising awareness,” she said.