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Same-sex unions in Africa

Last week, I wrote about what appeared to be a substantial policy shift in Malawi, with the new president reported to favor a reversal of anti-gay legislation.  Malawi expert Kim Dionne highlights that this appears not to be the case. This morning, Kim wrote to me to shed more light on what’s going on:

The story is changing daily… just this morning (Malawi time) her Attorney General/Minister of Justice (Ralph Kasambara) has said that two women reported to have had an engagement ceremony will not be prosecuted since the laws pertaining to alleged same-sex acts are “under review.” There’s a big uproar among the public in Malawi, with some going so far to say they’d have demonstrations if the law is repealed. All I can say at this point is this issue is an interesting one to watch in Malawi.

How does the situation look elsewhere? As I’ve written about before, mostly pretty grim. But it is worth reflecting upon some of the different ways in which same sex unions have been addressed in other countries, sometimes even in environments that are generally hostile to homosexuals.

For example, in Kenya, a court case from a few years back shed some light on a Kikuyu practice of women marrying other women — generally in cases in which a married woman in unable to have children. The court case involved a young man trying to evict his stepmother’s wife from a plot of land she inherited from the wife.

And the Nation reports that the Kenya National Human Rights Commission is recommending the decriminalization of homosexuality, prostitution and same sex marriages. The same article goes on to point out that same-sex marriage is common among several ethnic groups including Kikuyu, Kamba, Kisii, and Nandi communities under common law — while stipulating that such marriages “are not sexual.” Of course, that begs the question of whether we are talking about apples and oranges here… but it does suggest a comfort level with a committed legal relationship between two adults of the same sex.

Here in the U.S., a recent poll shows that more Americans now support gay marriage than oppose it. I’m not exactly expecting a quick sea-change across Africa, but given increasingly high levels of international media penetration, African news outlets and blogs are sparking more discussion and debate on this social issue. Will be interesting to observe the different ways in which this plays out…

About Evan Lieberman

I am a Professor of Political Science at MIT, and I conduct research, write, and teach about development, ethnic politics, and research methods.

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