Malawians conflicted over LGBT+ rights, tolerance, research finds

Image: 123RF/Aleksandar Radovanovic

Nearly all Malawians think LGBT+ human rights should be protected, yet the same number could not accept a gay or lesbian family member, according to a first-of-its kind report released this week.

A third said transgender people deserve human rights and should be protected from violence, while half said they had reported gender non-conforming people to authorities, said the report by the South Africa-based LGBT+ rights group The Other Foundation.

The research was the first country-wide survey of attitudes to sexual and gender nonconformity in Malawi, a southeastern African country of nearly 19 million people.

Malawi criminalizes same-sex conduct, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) people often face violence, threats and discrimination, according to Human Rights Watch, a global rights group.

The findings in Malawi showed contrasts swinging from tolerance to violence toward LGBT+ people, said Alan Msosa, lead researcher and an academic with the University of Bergen in Norway.

The contrasts illustrate the strong influence that language and religion have on views toward homosexuality and gender non-conformity, he said.

"For example, 80% believe that homosexual sex is wrong, but one in three believe God loves people in same-sex relationships," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"When we unpacked certain words using local languages, such as using 'justice, fairness and inclusion' over 'human rights,' we found that people were more tolerant in their views," Msosa said.

Researchers surveyed 1,300 Malawians in-person, and the questions were answered anonymously and explained in local languages, he said.

Prior to this study, there was little data on the views of Malawian society and size of the LGBT+ community, said Jessie Kabwila, a former member of Malawian parliament and a human rights researcher not involved in the study.

"This study gives me hope," she said. "This is locally conducted research by Malawians in our own languages that show that the perceptions are changing around gender and sexuality and there is light at the end of the tunnel."

The study found 87 percent supported constitutional protection of LGBT+ human rights.

But 90 percent said they could not accept a gay man or lesbian woman in their own family, and almost one in four said they might be violent toward gender non-conforming people in the future.

It also found 3.5% of Malawians identified as homosexual, bisexual, transgender or intersex, more than double that of South Africa, where gay marriage is legalized.

The figure is a call to Malawi's government, traditional leaders, education and healthcare systems to address the needs of the LGBT+ community, Kabwila said.

"This data showed that we exist," said Eric Sambisa, founder of LGBT+ rights group the Nyasa Rainbow Alliance.

The few studies on LGBT+ groups and societal attitudes had focused on HIV, said Sambisa, the first Malawian to come out as gay on national television in 2016.

"We are more than just an HIV status, and we now know the diverse views of the wider Malawian society," Sambisa said.

- Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @kimharrisberg; 

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