LIWONDE--Two of Malawi's leading rights groups on Thursday scaled up the fight for sexual minority rights, saying they are "forced to live underground in order to escape persecution, harassment, ridicule, violence, police arrests and imprisonment."
"Simply because of who they are and who they love," Charity Salima, board member of the technical working group for Centre for Human Rights and Rehabiliation (CHRR) and Centre for Development of People (CEDEP), said in her keynote speech at the opening of a media training workshop on sexual minority rights, who include homosexuals and intersexuals.
Salima said these groups can’t defend themselves against violations of their rights most of the time.
She said the workshop was important because it was to debate the "lives of people, our fellow human beings...it is about the injustices occasioned by Malawians on fellow Malawians without concern for their basic human rights; right to privacy, right to freedom of expression, freedom of association, right to the highest standard of health and the right to be free from discrimination."
Saying issues of sexual minorities are "complex", the board member pointed out that "sexual minorities are there in Malawi...they exist among us, some of them are our own brothers, sisters, uncles, aunties , friends and neighbours."
Others, she added, "are even our own pastors, priests, chiefs, civil servants, or our MPs who are afraid to come to the open because they will be arrested."
Salima said others are afraid to come out because of the "stigma-the shame that we have attached to their sexual orientation and gender identity."
She said there was need to reflect on the damage "we are doing to ourselves by not acknowledging their existence."
Salima said recent research had shown that HIV prevalence among Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) in Malawi was at 21.4 percent, "almost double the national average."
Studies have also shown that "fear of stigma and discrimination, and fear of arrests and vioelnce prevent these people from accessing appropriate health services."
Malawians, she said, should "not forget that we are all human beings regardless of who we love and what we do in the privacy of our homes. Our constitution is clear that all people should be treated the same regardless of colour, religion, ethnic origin or any other status."
Salima said the fight for sexual minority rights was "everyone's fight, not NGOs alone. We all have to play a role to ensure that marginalised groups are enjoying their rights and that they are protected from HIV and AIDS and that the whole nation is protected with them.
"Our lives are so connected and so interrelated-that an epidemic amongst sexual minorities automatically becomes our epidemic. You have heard that some MSMs have also wives and girlfriends. Research has shown that some of them marry and seek girlfriends just to hide their sexual orientation."
Salima said if these have no access to "protective tools" such as condoms and lubricants and they get infected, it means their wives or girlfriends too will become infected...in that way, Malawi may never be able to achieve a zero HIV infection rate."
She said HIV was challenging Malawians "to think outside the box and question some of our religious and cultural values and norms."
The purpose of religion and culture was to "preserve life and not to destroy it...all religions preach unconditional love,” she said.
Salima said when Jesus said "love your neighbour," he didn’t put conditions, he didn’t say "love your neighbour unless he is homosexual. He simply said "love your neighbour."
She said the message of love should be spread "so that Malawi can become a better place for everyone regardless of their sexual orientation or any other status."
©2012 The Maravi Post. Reproduction authorised, with usual acknowledgment.