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Stunning turnaround on LGBT rights in Malawi?

LILONGWE, Malawi -- The new president of Malawi says she wants to overturn her nation's homophobic laws that make it a crime to be LGBT.

Joyce Banda, who took over the presidency last month after the death of the homophobic leader Bingu wa Mutharika, presides over one of the world's poorest -- and most beautiful -- countries. In her first weeks in office, Banda has reversed some of Mutharika's policies in an attempt to get international aid restored. Many western countries withdrew aid from Malawi over the past few years over concerns about human rights and corruption.

According to the BBC, Banda addressed anti-gay laws during her first State of the Nation address to Malawi's Parliament:

"Some laws which were duly passed by the august house ... will be repealed as a matter of urgency ... these include the provisions regarding indecent practices and unnatural acts."

The BBC also reports that Banda has the support of a majority in Parliament, so she should be able to get repeal bills passed.

If Banda is successful, this would mark a remarkable turnabout for Malawi. In 2010, two Malawi men were sentenced to 14 years in prison because they wanted to get married. The case of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga brought unwanted international attention to Malawi, and San Diego Gay & Lesbian News followed their plight. Eventually, the global pressure from political leaders and celebrities such as Madonna helped to influence Mutharika, who were pardoned and freed.

The Rev. MacDonald Sembereka, a member of the COMPASS Coalition that is fighting for decriminalization of homosexuality worldwide, said today in an email that he has been appointed as an adviser to Banda on CSOs and NGOs in Malawi.

"We are making some progress," said Sembereka, who is the the acting national coordinator of the Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC), a network of 91 local civil society and non-governmental organizations, and the executive director of Malawi Network of Religious Leaders Living with HIV/AIDS (MANERELA).

Until Malawi reverses course, it will remain among the 76 countries in the world where being gay is illegal.