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There’s a big uproar among the public in Malawi, with some going so far to say they’d have demonstrations if the law is repealed.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…

From PRI: US Policy Sparks Anti-Gay Attacks in Liberia

Thanks to Rebecca Littman for passing on this story from PRI, which argues that U.S. statements identifying treatment of gays as a human rights concern have been associated with trumped up anti-gay rhetoric in the country.

Not surprisingly, false rumors have fueled frustrations:

Much of the recent debate here is rooted in misinformation about the Obama policy. Liberia receives more than $200 million a year from the U.S., and the Liberian media have repeatedly reported – incorrectly — that the Obama policy makes American foreign aid contingent on advancing gay rights. One newspaper headline declared: “‘No Gay Law, No Help,’ Obama threatens African Leaders.”

Some interviewed for the story have suggested that the backlash from the policy has actually led to increased threats to the security and dignity of gays in that country. I’d need to see a lot more evidence before I was convinced that the American statements have actually had a negative impact — could well be that there is simply more awareness and reporting of the problem, and a focus on a few visible events. Nonetheless, disheartening to think that this might be a real possibility.