NEW YORK — Malawi isn't ready to repeal laws which criminalize homosexuality, the country's reforming leader said Friday, despite her pledge after taking office to work to overturn the legislation.
Joyce Banda, a longtime rights campaigner who became Africa's second female head of state in April after her predecessor died in office, told The Associated Press that national debate had shown a lack of public support so far for the change.
"Anyone who has listened to the debate in Malawi realizes that Malawians are not ready to deal with that right now. I as a leader have no right to influence how people feel," she said, speaking in New York after addressing the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday.
After assuming the presidency following the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika, Banda said she had hoped Malawi's Parliament would support the repeal of the nation's indecency and unnatural acts laws.
The country faced international condemnation in 2010 for the conviction and 14-year prison sentences given two men who were arrested after celebrating their engagement and were charged under the laws. Both men were later pardoned, but Mutharika said they had "committed a crime against our culture."
"Where Malawi is and most African countries are, is maybe where America or the U.K. where about 100 years ago," Banda said. "The best thing the world can do is to allow each country to take its course, to allow each country to have that debate freely without the pressure of being pushed."
She said that the risk of pressing too fast for reform could be to incite violence. "We have seen countries where homosexuals have been killed. Why? Because, in my view, the country — the nation— wasn't ready," said the 62-year-old leader.
Banda, who will serve out Mutharika's term until 2014, has been praised for her efforts to reform Malawi and tackle its poverty, including by Secretary of States Hillary Rodham Clinton, who visited for talks last month.
In an attempt to woo back the support of the International Monetary Fund and aid donors, Banda devalued Malawi's currency — a step seen as vital, but one she acknowledges has hurt poor Malawians.
Banda has announced that, in response, she will take a cut to her presidential salary, sell off or lease the presidential jet and sell a fleet of 60 luxury government vehicles.
"I have told Malawians that it will get worse before it gets better. At a time when it gets worse, then I must demonstrate that I am passing through this period with them, that I am suffering with them," Banda said.
She explained that using the presidential jet it took her about two hours to visit Mozambique or South Africa, or one hour to Zambia or Tanzania. "Without a jet, it takes me two days to visit those countries, but it is good for Malawians to see me jumping on a commercial flight, it is my one small demonstration that at a time such as this, I am prepared to take an extra mile as well in feeling the pain," Banda said.
Banda also acknowledged her disappointment after Madonna scaled back charity efforts in Malawi. In 2009, the singer — who has adopted two children from Malawi, David and Mercy — announced plans for a $15 million academy for girls. Earlier this year, she said that her Raising Malawi foundation would instead provide $300,000 to a non-governmental organization to develop 10 schools.
Madonna insists the new approach in Malawi will serve twice as many children as the original plan.
"It is a very painful matter for me to discuss right now," said Banda, a longtime campaigner for female rights and better education.
"I have spent my adult life trying to save Malawians and the last thing I want to discuss is when people come and make a promise and do not come back," Banda said. "Then you realize that there is a lot of money that didn't end up there, so that is a very painful matter."
Banda said she hoped her leadership would serve as an inspiration to young women in Malawi and across Africa. "I feel that it is very important for women to be sitting side by side with me at the political debating tables, because they must participate and address issues of poverty ... issues of education," she said.
The leader also vowed not to compromise on tough decisions to create jobs and tackle shortages of sugar, fuel and other basic commodities when she seeks election in 2014.
"I will not go out and buy votes to make sure I get back in that position, but I will do all it takes to correct the situation in Malawi, which includes making difficult decisions," Banda said.