Tuesday, May 25, 2010

We Are All Malawi's Jailed Couple

by Michael Jones for Change.org:

Imagine being told that you can't love the person of your dreams, and that as punishment for falling in love with that person, you would have to serve fourteen years in prison, under a "hard labor" sentence. Such is the story of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, the gay Malawi couple sentenced by a judge this week for committing "unnatural acts" and "gross indecency," simply because they professed their love for each other in public.

In December 2009, the couple held a public ceremony to celebrate their relationship. Upwards of 500 people were there to witness it, with Steven proposing to Tiwonge. Call it a ceremony. Call it just a really sweet overture between two people in love. Or just call it something that millions of people around the globe do each day.

But in Malawi, falling in love with the wrong person is enough to get you thrown in jail, with some of the harshest prison conditions imaginable. But the judge at the heart of this case just doesn't care. He celebrated his decision to throw Steven and Tiwonge in prison for the next fourteen years.

"I do not believe Malawi is ready at this point in time to see its sons getting married to other sons, or cohabitating, or conducting engagement ceremonies,” the magistrate said. “Malawi is not ready to smile at her daughters marrying each other. Let posterity judge this judgment.”

Forget posterity. Let's let the lens of human rights and dignity judge this judgment. And in that regard, Malawi fails big time. Demand that Steven and Tiwonge be set free. No one should have to go to jail for falling in love.

The world community is aghast at this Malawi judge's ruling, with everyone from the head of UNAIDS to the White House to pop icon Madonna expressing dismay at their imprisonment, and what it means for both LGBT rights, HIV prevention, and human rights in the African country.

"The United States strongly condemns the conviction and harsh sentencing of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga in Malawi. The criminalization of sexual orientation and gender identity is unconscionable, and this case mars the human rights record of Malawi," the White House said in their statement. "We urge Malawi and all countries to stop using sexual orientation or gender identity as the basis for arrest, detention, or execution."

(Notice the White House didn't add "stop using sexual orientation or gender identity as the basis for firing employees...", but perhaps that's a different blog post.)

The truth is, there's something entirely universal about the story of Steven and Tiwonge that should move us all. To hear Tiwonge say it, this couple has become martyrs for lovers everywhere.

"You don’t arrest someone because he loves someone," Tiwonge said in January, shortly after the couple was detained. "I love my husband and laws should not prohibit love."

It's damn hard to take issue with that. All hope is not entirely lost, though the picture does look grim. Steven and Tiwonge's lawyers are appealing the case to Malawi's High Court, which may be more persuaded by the widespread international attention that this case has received.

But the situation for LGBT rights in Malawi is not pretty. As Steven and Tiwonge were carted away to jail this week, demonstrators danced in the street, with one woman gladly screaming, "Malawi should never allow homosexuality at any cost."

We can't let that statement be the end of this dialogue. Send a message to Malawi's government that the decision levied against Steven and Tiwonge is not only wrong, but unjust. As Albert Einstein once said, "By raising my voice I can help the greatest of all causes — goodwill among men and peace on earth.”

Einstein left out love. But as the story of Steven and Tiwonge demonstrates, it belongs there right along with goodwill and peace, too.


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