With less than two weeks until the beginning of the World Cup, Africa is everywhere. Inspiring soccer stories share space with reports on the continuing challenges in addressing HIV and AIDS, “corrective” rape, and brutal attacks on the bodies and rights of gays and lesbians. All this press is both a welcome platform for a new agenda, and a harsh exposé, casting long shadows on the impending Cup.
Suffering from a bit of burnout, I’ve been quietly waiting for some good news. Yesterday, I got it.
Back in December 2009, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga were arrested and charged with “unnatural practices between males and gross public indecency” after they had a traditional engagement ceremony in Blantyre’s Chirimba township in Malawi. After being held separately in prison for nearly six months, the men were found guilty, and then sentenced to 14 years hard labour (the maximum penalty).
Human rights organizations condemned the ruling and sentence, and word spread on the Internet. Public protests were held in New York City and London. The Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP) set up an online petition, as did Raising Malawi, an organization founded by Madonna and Michael Berg. Madonna released a statement on the site challenging the decision, and invited people to sign their name next to hers. Over 30,000 people did.
Yesterday, Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika pardoned Monjeza and Chimbalanga and ordered their immediate release.
“In all aspects of reasoning, in all aspects of human understanding, these two gay boys were wrong – totally wrong… However, now that they have been sentenced, I as the president of this country have the powers to pronounce on them and therefore, I have decided that with effect from today, they are pardoned and they will be released.”
– President Bingu wa Mutharika, “Malwai pardons jailed couple,” BBC News
It’s a curious statement, lacking in political heft, but I’ll take it.
This is clearly a victory for Monjeza and Chimbalanga, and for LGBT rights. It’s also an important step towards a better model in dealing with HIV and AIDS (for more on how these things are connected read my post, “The saddest circus in the world“).
There’s a lesson about engagement here. Social media makes it easy to gather, publicize, and comment on global issues. In this case, Facebook was an effective catalyst with multimedia capabilities: details of the story were accompanied by links to petitions and calls to action. We should remember to use these new tools. Bravo to everyone who signed petitions, stood at rallies, and shared these stories.