Thousands march against abortion and same sex marriage in Malawi

Peaceful Assembly

On 6th December, a protest march against same-sex marriage and legalised abortion took place across Malawi. Organised by faith-based organisations, thousands marched to condemn alleged government plans to introduce a law in parliament to allow for abortion, which is currently largely illegal in Malawi, and same-sex marriage. Many women's rights and LGBTI civil society organisations have drawn attention to the march as being indicative of a level of hostility within Malawian society towards excluded groups. Further, the decision by the authorities to approve the protest came came only days after a planned demonstration by students on 30th November was cancelled because the authorities rejected its approval (see below). This led many to question whether the march against same-sex marriage and abortion had political support.

Gay rights advocacy body, the Centre for the Development of People (Cedep), condemned the demonstrations when they were still in the planning stage, stating that:

"In a country where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons (LGBT) people are already marginalised and need to hide for fear for arbitrary violence, the planned demonstrations is an appalling move to further curtail the rights of LGBT people, and those who support them"

A planned demonstration by higher education students in the capital, Lilongwe, and second-largest city, Blantyre, on 30th November was unable to proceed after students failed to receive permission to protest from Malawian authorities. Despite the ban, a protest took place in the northern city of Mzuzu as students sought to pressure the government to reopen colleges that were closed following demonstrations for lower student fees in September. The refusal of the police and city council authorities in Blantyre and Lilongwe to give students permission to demonstrate was interpreted by the students as political. In a press statement, student leaders stated that:

"We regret to inform you all that the Lilongwe, Blantyre City Council and Police did not ‘grant us permission’ citing a few vague reasons. We have no doubt, there is huge political interference from above."

Expression

On 21st October, the President of Malawi, Peter Mutharika, attacked the media "for spreading rumours of his death." This followed the President's failure to return home for several weeks after the conclusion of the United Nations General Assembly, held in New York in September 2016; in the absence of any credible information, many media outlets and citizens began to speculate over his whereabouts and health. 

Upon his return President Mutharika threatened several media outlets, and singled out Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS) and the Times Group, which publishes the Malawi News, Daily Times and Sunday Times, and operates Times Radio and Times TV. He called the media house "disgusting" and stated that it writes "nonsense and garbage." In response to these threats, leaders in Malawi's media industry, including the Malawi chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) met on 7th November to coordinate a response to the President's threats. Following the meeting the media houses condemned the threats to the media and expressed concern over "the highly belligerent attitude” that the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government [had] taken against the independent media “to silence it from telling Malawians the truth.”