Malawi: Breaking news – Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga pardoned

Further to my recent post about the sentencing of a couple to 14 years hard labour merely for getting engaged, BBC News (and others) are reporting that Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga have been pardoned and granted immediate release:

A […] couple who were jailed in Malawi have been pardoned by President Bingu wa Mutharika.

Mr Mutharika, speaking as UN chief Ban Ki-moon visited Lilongwe, said he had ordered their immediate release.

Steven Monjeza, 26, and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 20, were given 14-year jail terms after being convicted of gross indecency and unnatural acts.

More details to follow as and when available.

UPDATE, Sunday, May 30: The Associated Press report contains more information, but – in common with virtually every other news report (and statement by human rights and other activist groups) – persists in labelling Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza as a “gay couple”, “two men”, etc, and using male pronouns about them despite Tiwonge’s self-identification as a woman.

But it’s clear that the release of Steven and Tiwonge does not bring their ordeal to a happy ending; rather, in the words of the saying, it simply moves them “out of the frying pan and into the fire”:

Undule Mwakasungure, a gay rights activist in Malawi, told The AP Saturday he was concerned about the couple’s safety, and working with other activists to find a safe house for them and possible arrange for them to leave the country at least temporarily.

“There is homophobic sentiment. I think they might be harmed,” Mwakasungure said.

Edi Phiri, who fled Malawi for Britain five years ago after being beaten because he was gay, said the two might need to seek asylum outside of Malawi.

“They will be out of prison, but what will happen next?” Phiri said. “The community will see them as outcasts. I don’t think they will be safe in Malawi.”

A cousin of Chimbalanga, Maxwell Manda, told The AP earlier in the week that Chimbalanga wanted to leave Malawi upon his release.

Mwakasungure and Phiri said the pardon was welcome and could fuel campaigns to overturn Malawi’s anti-gay legislation and try to change attitudes.

“The public needs to appreciate that the world is changing,” Mwakasungure said. “It won’t be easy. But I think that as time goes, people will start to appreciate. We’re not talking about changing the law today or tomorrow. But we have to start the process.”


While the order was immediate, a prison spokesman told The AP they had not received notification to release the two men by Saturday afternoon.

Mwakasungure, the activist, said he hoped the release would be delayed until Monday or Tuesday, to give him time to prepare a safe house.

Certainly, the priority must be to ensure the safety of Tiwonge and Steven, and it is to be hoped that this can be achieved as a matter of urgency and without exposing them to any further risk of violence.

But of continuing concern must be the issue of the almost complete erasure of Tiwonge’s self-identified womanhood by, not only the Malawian authorities, from the president to the police and the courts; but also by (apparently) every human rights organisation, activist group and news outlet. Even in the formal Judgement report produced by the court, it is clear that Tiwonge exhibited what the current WPATH Standards of Care document calls cross-gendered behavior; that she lived and worked as a woman, yet this was dismissed out-of-hand. But on the basis of the court report alone, it is hard not to think that she is transgender, perhaps also intersex:

She [businesswoman Flony Frank] then told the court that she discovered that [Tiwonge] has male genitals though they did no look normal to her

And this quote, from the New York Times back in February is, I think, particularly telling. First, Tiwonge in her own words:

“I have male genitals, but inside I am a complete woman. Maybe I cannot give birth to a child, but I menstruate every month — or most months — and I can do any household chores a woman can do.”

Perhaps surprisingly, although Barry Bearak, the NYT reporter, seems to be hinting at a possible intersex variation, he wastes no time in implying that Tiwonge may be deluding herself:

“Menstruation through his penis” had begun by then, a condition that may have some extremely rare medical cause, some experts say, but could also be the imagined claim of a gay man in a repressed society desperate to think himself a woman.

But regardless of whether Tiwonge is trans, or intersex, or both, the complete erasure of her self-identification as a woman is a frightening reminder of the Kafka-esque outcome when the intersections of racism, classism, homophobia and transphobia are brought to bear against an individual. It is this ignorance, these dangerous attitudes, that must be treated if cases like this are to be avoided in future. Only when these vectors of oppression are understood is it likely that “anti-gay” legislation – globally, not just in Malawi – being used against trans women will come to an end. Pessimistically, I don’t see this happening any time soon, apart from attitudinal changes taking time to happen, there is the wider question of whether or not mainstream cis society even wants to accept trans people as human beings with the same civil liberties and human rights as cis people. But of one thing I’m certain sure: sentencing women to 14 years hard labour in a men’s prison is not the answer to the question of how cis people can safely integrate with the global trans community.