Protests, persecution and improvements: life as a transwoman in Malawi

Imagine finding out your mother took part in a protest – against who you are. That’s what happened to 29-year-old transgender woman Shy Amanda, from Blanytre, Malawi.

<p>Shy Amanda faces many challenges as a transgender woman&nbsp;living in Malawi</p>Shy Amanda faces stigma and many challenges as a transgender woman living in Malawi
© Gemma Taylor for International HIV/AIDS Alliance

“There was a demo earlier this year, ‘Christians Against Homosexuality and Abortion’. I didn’t know my mum was one of the protesters until I received WhatsApp messages from my friends,” says Shy. “They sent me pictures of my mother carrying placards, saying ‘homosexuality is a sin’ and various other things. I felt sick, I was traumatised.”

Shy doesn’t blame her mother though, recognising that the influence of the church and religious and traditional leaders is powerful. “If our village head man and religious leaders could be taught what it’s like to be gay* then it could become much easier for us,” says Shy. “It starts with them.”

Forced out of business

When word got round the church that Shy’s mum had been at the demo, it gave the perception that she had “no backing” and some people decided to exploit this by taking the opportunity to vent their homophobia, or transphobia, towards her.

“People started coming to my shebeen [small bar/café]. They attacked my shop, saying ‘we don’t want any gays here’, and ‘you’re here to teach this to the little ones’,” she sighs. “Up until now business is not going well. I’ve decided to close just now.”

Tragically for Shy, her business is not the only loss she’s dealing with, as she’s still grieving the death of her father last year. Yet despite these extremely challenging times she also feels she’s gained in other aspects of her life.

Facing the challenge of transphobia

The support of local community-based organisation Community Health Rights Advocacy (CHeRA) has given Shy support in facing her challenges. Shy, and others, receive information and encouragement, but it’s more than just information, it’s a network of friends with genuine empathy. While empathy is invaluable, they also want concrete change, so that there’s tangible improvement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI) in Malawi. So CHeRA is also working towards removing barriers which prevent LGBTI people from accessing HIV services.

This work includes, informing LGBTI people of their rights, sensitisation training for health workers and police officers, and advocacy work with local parliamentarians and candidates.

One area where they’ve already had significant impact is in their work with health workers. It’s notoriously difficult for LGBTI people to access government hospitals because of the fear of stigma and discrimination, with many people from the LGBTI community sharing stories of humiliation. To tackle this, CHeRA has trained a number of healthcare workers so LGBTI people can access services in an understanding environment. Shy now has a list of phone numbers so she can call ahead and walk straight into an LGBTI-friendly appointment.

Living with HIV

Shy believes this support would have made a difference four years ago when she found out she was living with HIV. “I couldn’t accept it, I was in denial, it was another year before I started treatment,” she says. “I felt very sorry for myself.” Shy lost a lot of weight and developed tuberculosis before she accepted a second HIV diagnosis a year later.

“Things have really changed now,” she says. “CHeRA encourage me to visit the clinic, and keep in touch about my treatment and how it’s all going.” It wasn’t the only thing that changed three years ago, once on treatment and looking and feeling healthy again, she met her boyfriend. “It’s a good relationship,” says Shy breaking into a big smile, “and every human being has the right to love. God created me in his image.”

Despite her recent setbacks, Shy’s looking forwards not backwards. She says: “I’m thinking of seeing if I can get another shabeen in a better, more central environment, where people don’t mind me.”

* A lack of understanding or nuance means that Shy Amanda would usually be viewed as or referred to as a gay man rather than a trans woman.

CHeRA has been assisted by a grant from the Rapid Response Fund, which is managed by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance and funded by the Elton John AIDS Foundation. The Fund makes grants to LGBT and MSM organisations so they can carry out urgent work to alleviate the stigma, discrimination and violence that threaten provision, access and uptake of HIV services for MSM and LGBT people.