Malawi's new president, Joyce Banda, has inherited an unenviable to-do list from former president Bingu wa Mutharika, and AIDS activists are hoping that bolstering the donor-dependent AIDS response will be one of her most urgent priorities.
A lot is at stake. An estimated 10 percent of the adult population is HIV-positive, with about 70,000 Malawians newly infected with HIV every year. Yet the country is almost entirely dependent on external funding for its AIDS programmes, and ambitious plans to scale up treatment have been derailed after the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria rejected a succession of funding proposals.
To make matters worse, under former president Bingu wa Mutharika, who died suddenly in April 2012, Malawi had fallen out of favour with Western donors as a result of concerns about human rights and poor governance, leading to a significant loss of donor support.
Banda has been working to restore relations with donors, and it seems to be paying off. Britain has agreed to unlock aid frozen in 2011 after a diplomatic spat with Mutharika. The UK's International Department for International Development (DFID) pledged to release an initial £30 million (US$47.3 million) tranche of urgent funding, £10 million ($15.8 million) of which will be used to support Malawi's ailing healthcare system, while the remainder will go towards stabilizing the economy.
"We are hopeful that since more donors are now coming forward, such aid will trickle down to funding HIV/AIDS programmes that have been hit by lack of funds," said Norman Mwambakulu, deputy secretary of the Department of Nutrition and HIV/AIDS. He is optimistic that the steps taken by the new administration to regain donor confidence will put the government's efforts back on track, and that Malawi could still reach its target of having zero new HIV infections by 2015.
But Gift Trapence, executive director of the Centre for Development of People (CEDEP), a rights NGO, warned that the money may have come too late for smaller AIDS organizations. "Malawi has been struggling with AIDS funding for some time. The window of hope that the new administration has provided may not be enough," he told IRIN/PlusNews.
Banda has also pledged to repeal some of the repressive laws passed by Mutharika, among them the Indecent and Unnatural Acts, which criminalizes homosexuality. Human rights activists noted that the legislation heightened anxiety in Malawi's underground lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community, and compromised HIV prevention efforts among men who have sex with men (MSM).
The move has been welcomed by activists who have been living in fear in the shadow of the controversial trial in 2010 of two Malawian men charged with sodomy and indecency after they became engaged to be married in December 2009. The couple were found guilty but later released on condition that they have no further contact.
According to Trapence, the "progressive" stance taken by Banda has also been adopted by other government officials, such as the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, who recently spoke out against gays being arrested.
Although president Banda did not specify when the proposal to repeal the laws will come before parliament, Trapence said her statement gave activists a chance to increase awareness of the rights of homosexuals.
"The President has created a space to debate this issue. This is a very good opportunity for us to challenge misconceptions and bring the facts to legislators, the media and traditional leaders."