The Southern African nation of Malawi will hold a popular vote on whether to legalize same-sex marriage and decriminalize homosexuality, its president has announced.
Malawi’s colonial era sodomy law criminalizes sex between men with up to 14 years in prison and lawmakers banned same-sex marriage in April of this year.
The law criminalizing homosexuality was suspended briefly in 2012 after a transgender woman and her male partner were sentenced to 14 years of hard labor after they married in a traditional ceremony in 2009 – sparking an international outcry.
Malawi does not recognize the existence of transgender people so they were treated by the criminal justice system as if they were a same-sex couple.
Malawi’s then president Joyce Banda responded by suspending the law. However a backlash from churches saw the law quickly restored.
But now Banda’s successor to the presidency, Peter Mutharika, has told Malawian state media that he will put the issue to a popular vote – along with same-sex marriage and abortion.
‘On the issue of gay marriages, again I have said in our [Democratic Progressive Party] manifesto that we will leave that to the people,’ Mutharika told the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation during Tuesday’s Talk to the President broadcast.
President Mutharika did not announce a timeframe for the referendum or whether the issues of decriminalizing homosexuality and same-sex marriage would be dealt with as separate questions on the ballot.
It would seem unlikely that the vote would be successful if the issues were bound together.
Some human rights activists have been buoyed by the news while others have voiced their concerns about the fundamental human rights of people being put to a popular vote.
Malawi’s Yes Equality campaign told The Face of Malawi that they planned to hold parades and public events to educate the public on the issue and encourage public figures to come out.
‘Everyone has a right to be free from discrimination in the enjoyment of their human rights, including to marry an found a family,’ the campaign told the newspaper.
‘Love does not discriminate and neither should our laws.’
Mutharika is not up for re-election before 2019 so he has until then to make good on the pledge.