Malawi: Couple sentenced to 14 years in prison with hard labour for getting engaged

// 20 May 2010


Today, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, whom the media calls “Malawi’s first openly gay couple” even though Tiwonge identifies as a woman and her partner as her husband, were given a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison with hard labour after being convicted of gross indecency and unnatural acts. The judge said he wanted to protect the public from “people like you”. They have been detained in prison and repeatedly denied bail since they were arrested on 28 December 2009 after holding an engagement ceremony.

Their treatment has been internationally condemned – although the British government, Malawi’s largest donor, hasn’t withdrawn aid despite expressing its “dismay” – and the case has sparked debate over homosexuality and trans issues in Malawi, a conservative country where religious leaders equate same-sex liaisons with Satanism and President Bingu wa Mutharika has dismissed homosexuality as alien.

Gender DynamiX, a South African trans group, has produced the following video of the South African protest against the conviction of the couple which also addresses the problem of identifying them as a “gay” couple, despite Tiwonge’s expressed female gender identity:

(The direct link to the video is // as far as I’m aware, there is no transcription)


Saturday: The following is a transcript of the video made by Kate, a regular TFW reader, and I cannot thank her enough for generously taking the time and trouble to make this transcript. Thanks Kate!

Opening title:

protest – cape town

transgender woman and her partner in malawi is convicted to 14 years imprisonment for attempting to get engaged.

20 may 2010

Opening scene: Crowd protesting noisily

“Hi, I’m Tebogo Nkoana from Gender DynamiX South Africa. I’m standing outside the Department of Home Affairs in Cape Town. Today we are protesting with other activists against the conviction that was made to one transgender woman in Malawi who attempted to be in a relationship… I mean to get engaged with her partner in Malawi. So we’re protesting against that , asking… or appealing to our government that they must please accept them or give them the refugee status in our country because of the expressed problems in their country.”

Crowd sing and clap in background.

“It’s an incredibly important demonstration because the people here are not only gay and lesbian and transgendered and intersexed activists but they are people from various political angles, human rights and what’s holding everyone together is people’s human rights”

Crowd sing loudly in background.

“Tiwonge and Steven are a couple in Malawi that were convicted to 14 years imprisonment today. They attempted to get engaged at a private function at Tiwonge’s workplace. Tiwonge is a male-bodied person who identifies as female and has lived as a female all her life. However, the media, and organisations all over the world, is treating this as a couple who are homosexual. They were also convicted as a homosexual couple who does unnatural acts against nature”

Crowd chants “sign it” (petition) and claps. Whistles in crowd.

“I acknowledge receipt and I will hand it over [to the Prime Minister?] tomorrow”

Crowd claps and whistles.

“It is…it’s your prerogative, it’s no-one else’s, you know. And if you’re happy with what you are, why…why must the next person, like, you know, outcast you for what you want to be, you know. So…it’s not like if you’re going to stay in their house that they’re going to outcast you, so…”

“Of course, it’s very problematic for us in Africa to do transgender activism. Information about gender identity is not as available as it is in the West. It is very clear that the couple in Malawi is a couple which the one is a transgender woman and the other is a heterosexual-identifying…em…partner. Em…but I suppose the…the…the protest today is important in the sense that it’s not really necessary for us to separate things out…em…because it is a human rights violation when somebody has to go to jail for 14 years because they just attempted to have a private function to get engaged to one another, two consenting adults.”

Closing title:

The judge justified his harsh sentence by saying “the case has left a scar on Malawi’s morality,”

gender dynamix rejects the conviction of Transgender woman Tiwomnge and her partner Steven and urges the SA government to end their silence concerning these human rights infringements

south africa

021633 5287

Comments From You

DrCat // Posted 21 May 2010 at 7:47 am

That’s very interesting – the BBC certainly did not make it clear that Tiwonge Chimbalanga was female identified.

I’m confused though – everyone in the video speaks in English, so why do you want a transcription?

Helen G // Posted 21 May 2010 at 7:57 am

DrCat: I’m confused though – everyone in the video speaks in English, so why do you want a transcription?

As Holly pointed out, The F-Word has an ongoing initiative to make the site accessible to as many readers as possible; and part of that process involves adding video transcripts where we can.

If anyone is able to assist in this instance, please leave a note in the comments; it would be appreciated.



DrCat // Posted 21 May 2010 at 8:06 am

Ah I understand now! For some reason you hit a paranoid nerve and I thought you were implying something about South African accents in particular. Thanks for the explanation!

Helen G // Posted 21 May 2010 at 8:16 am

DrCat: Apologies for nerve-hitting; I should have been clearer about my reasoning in my original post.

aimee // Posted 21 May 2010 at 10:35 am

This is fucked up. What can we do?

Laurel Dearing // Posted 21 May 2010 at 11:23 am

one would think that in the minds of people that think homosexuality (or…not really) and homosexual individuals are a threat to the public (perhaps ‘turning’ other people or engaging in sexual acts or worse, against will) would be more confident with them being engaged and wanting to stick to each other? unless they really did have reason to suspect them of sexual violence against others. im baffled at how laws blatantly against ones personal life choices can pretend to extend to protecting from a public threat

Laurel Dearing // Posted 21 May 2010 at 11:23 am

i didnt mean *choice* if that got through, sorry

Yewtree // Posted 21 May 2010 at 11:30 am

Some people seem to use gay as a synonym for LGBT.

Either way, I am appalled at the way Stephen and Tiwonge have been treated.

Kate // Posted 21 May 2010 at 11:31 am

Hi Helen,

I could transcribe it. If you want my help, just let me know.


PS I agree with DrCat that the BBC did not make it clear that Tiwonge Chimbalanga is transgender. Neither did The Guardian, where I first read about this:

Helen G // Posted 21 May 2010 at 11:52 am

aimee: It’s difficult to know what, if anything, can be done other than continue to give cases like this as much publicity as we can in the (admittedly faint) hope that there may eventually be some sort of cumulative “name and shame” effect on the authorities. But when even NGOs like Human Rights Watch seem to have ignored these convictions, it’s hard to be optimistic.

The Facebook group in support of Steven and Tiwonge has just posted details of a protest outside the Malawi High Commission in London, scheduled for 29 May which might offer at least one a way of showing solidarity.

Helen G // Posted 21 May 2010 at 12:01 pm

Kate: Thank you, that’s a very generous offer and if you would be prepared to transcribe the video I’d be more than happy to publish it as a postscript to the post. I’m not going to be in front of the computer much for the rest of today and most of tomorrow, but through the wonders of mobile phone technology I can check my TFW email later (heleng[AT]thefword[DOT]org[DOT]uk) and we can figure something out.

I agree, the media coverage has been uniformly awful – while this isn’t exactly a surprise, it still disappoints – with the NYT’s coverage in February surely being the worst so far.

aimee // Posted 21 May 2010 at 12:54 pm

Okay thanks Helen. It’s so frustrating that we can’t *DO* anything. Why are people allowed to get away with this? It’s disgusting.

Celia // Posted 22 May 2010 at 4:07 am

We should also make sure to inform people as best we can that one of the couple is a transwoman. Not because that makes it any better or worse than if they were two cis-men, but because transphobia needs to be addressed.

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