Human Rights Watch has joined rights groups in Malawi in rejecting a planned public consultation into LGBTI equality.
The Malawi Human Rights Commission recently announced a public inquiry in November on the issue after the government asked it to assist it “to determine the way forward”.
The inquiry aims “to get views from the public that would be used to inform the national position on the controversial issue of LGBTI”.
Human Rights Watch, however, expressed its concerns about the objectives of the inquiry, arguing that “the rights of a minority should not be granted or withheld based on the views of the majority”.
The group consulted with Malawian activists and human rights groups and it was agreed that “a public inquiry… risks exposing an already vulnerable minority to abuse and will inevitably lead to further violations of the human rights of LGBTI individuals”.
Human Rights Watch urged the commission to abandon the public inquiry. “It is critical that Malawi’s national position on human rights not be determined by public opinion but by its legal obligations under the constitution and regional and international law,” said the organisation.
Instead, it argued, the commission should conduct an inquiry “focused specifically on violence, abuse and discrimination faced by LGBTI individuals in Malawi”.
The status of LGBTI people in Malawi is unclear. In December 2015, Justice Minister Samuel Tembenu ordered a moratorium on the arrest of Malawians for having gay sex, which carries a penalty of 14 years in prison.
The courts have, however, ruled that the government cannot suspend a law and that only parliament can do so.
There were reports, as recently as January, that two men were arrested in Lilongwe on allegations that they committed “acts of sodomy”. It was claimed that some members of the community took the law into their own hands by harassing the “suspects” and destroying their property.
Anti-gay religious groups have called on the government to hold a referendum on decriminalising homosexuality, knowing that most Malawians would likely vote against doing so.
A 2016 Afrobarometer survey found that just 6% of Malawians would be comfortable with having gay neighbours.