A transgender woman who was jailed for 14 years under Malawi’s anti-gay laws has spoken out about her marriage ceremony that triggered her arrest.
Tiwonge Chimbalanga, 24, was freed and granted asylum in South Africa two years ago but waited to speak to the press for fear of inciting further backlash.
Known as ‘Aunt Tiwo’, Chimbalanga and her openly gay partner Steven Monjeza drew criticism to the deeply conservative Malawi after the couple were arrested for holding a traditional engagement ceremony in late 2009.
The pair was sentenced to 14 years with hard labor as a ‘horrendous example’ in 2010.
The couple were pardoned by President Bingu wa Mutharika, who had described the couple as ‘insane’ and the ceremony ‘satanic’, 11 days after extreme international criticism.
‘I don’t have any regrets, I didn’t do anything wrong,’ Chimbalanga, who was tried as a gay man despite identifying as a transgender woman, told Associated Foreign Press.
She added: ‘I had mixed feelings because on the one hand I felt it was a wonderful thing for me to do a normal, natural thing like getting married, whilst on the other hand it was very painful.
‘I was beaten in prison. During the trial the security guards ill-treated me. I was verbally abused and suffered all sorts of inhumane treatments, I have scars from the beatings.
‘Yet I felt good that I was able to do what I wanted to do.’
After their release, the couple broke up and Chimbalanga spent months hiding in a safe house before being granted refugee status in South Africa, which is the only country in Africa that allows same-sex marriage.
‘The thing that I wish for in Malawi is that all gays, lesbians and transgenders must come out and have their rights like everybody else. It seems that in Malawi there are human rights for the rich and another set for the poor,’ Chimbalanga said.
‘I want everyone to have their human rights and freedom to choose what they want to be and the only way to achieve that is by coming out and claiming their rights.’
On 5 November, gay people had a brief taste of freedom when the government announced they would suspend their anti-homosexuality law.
Three days later, church criticism demanded the law remain in place until parliament voted on a new law. However, police have been told not to arrest anyone engaged in homosexual activity.
Justice Minister Ralph Kasambara said: ‘If we continue arresting and prosecuting people based on the said laws and later such laws are found to be unconstitutional it would be an embarrassment to government.
‘It is better to let one criminal get away with it rather than throw a lot of innocent people in jail.’