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How do we solve a problem like Malawi?

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Southwark Registry office is right on my doorstep and we often watch the weddings and civil ceremonies from our balcony.

On Saturday there was a gay civil ceremony.

Both grooms were young, handsome and black – one West Indian, one African.

It got me thinking about the awful ruling in Malawi last week when a gay couple was jailed for 14 years’ hard labour for being gay and trying to get married.

The Malawian judge, Nyakwawa Usiwa-Usiwa, stated quite clearly that he was handing down such a severe sentence to make a stance against homosexuality.

“I will give you a scaring sentence, so that the public be protected from people like you; so that we are not tempted to emulate this horrendous example,” he said.

Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga now look like spending the best years of their lives in prison with all the abuse they are likely to suffer at the hands of disapproving prison guards and their fellow inmates.


Making the stand they made, in announcing they were to marry, was undeniably brave and the judge’s decision has caused worldwide outrage, with even Madonna, who has adopted two children from the country, speaking out.

Unfortunately homophobic attitudes are not confined to Malawi, Africa or even the developing world. Bed and Breakfast owners in Cookham, teenage mobs in Liverpool and even some senior politicians have shown that Africa has no monopoly on bigotry.

The difference that we enjoy here though is that for the large part, the law is on the right side.

This isn’t the same as saying that all the battles have been won: the fight for legal same sex marriages here and in the US still has a long way to go for example. But having recourse to law when your rights are violated is one of the things that nurtures faith in a society.

There is homophobia on both sides of my family.

Among some members of my Jamaican and Swazi families, same sex relationships are seen as ungodly, unnatural, and acceptance of these cultures is seen as yet another Western imposition.

They look at the way we treat each other and our elderly and they point to our social ills and say that our society is no example of how to live.

These cultural considerations can sometimes make it hard for those of us in the West to feel comfortable about criticising oppressive laws and customs in developing countries.

For me it’s very simple.

There are lots of ills that the West has brought to the developing world – rampaging capitalism, international racism, unfair debt chasing and climate change are just some.

But one thing we can be proud of is that over the years, campaigners for women’s rights, racial equality, gay rights and disability rights have changed our societies and made discrimination a lot harder to countenance.

Wherever oppression and bigotry raise their ugly heads, we should do everything in our power to fight them and resign them to history.

There is another problem though.

The often patronising and exploitative relationship we have with developing nations makes it hard for our complaints to be taken seriously in these countries.

This can leave campaigners in Britain scratching their heads to work out how they can have a positive influence on human rights violating nations.

I don’t believe that trade boycotts or the cutting of aid are the most constructive actions as these will hit some of the poorest people in the world and are unlikely to bring about changes of heart or the liberalisation of laws.

I would imagine that the very fact that there is support from the West is a comfort to those facing oppression. Even if your situation doesn’t improve, simply knowing that someone out there is on your side and is fighting your corner, is incredibly empowering.

I would argue the best way to support progressive change in other countries is to directly support those local campaigners who leading the fight in those nations.

This can be money, campaigning know-how or just verbal support.

Those fighting within these countries are much better placed to understand how best to win the arguments about liberties in their own lands.

This is where the voluntary sector, both home and abroad, comes to the fore.

Finding and supporting groups abroad, like the Centre for the Development of People, a gay rights organisation in Malawi, should be an imperative for British campaigning groups.

Linking arms with our brothers and sisters across the globe will eventually bring about the changes that are needed so that everyone can at least share one of the rights that we consider to be intrinsic.

The right to love who we want to.

the above was written in 2009. In November 2012, the Malawi government suspended all anti-gay laws despite opposition from church groups.

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