President Joyce Banda declared Friday she wants to repeal Malawi's laws against homosexual acts, going against a trend in Africa in which gays are being increasingly singled out for prosecution.
Banda, who assumed the presidency in April when her predecessor died, made the announcement in her first state of the nation address.
"Indecency and unnatural acts laws shall be repealed," she said. But repealing a law requires a parliamentary vote, and it is unclear how much political support Banda would have for sweeping changes in this impoverished and conservative nation in southern Africa.
Malawi had faced international condemnation for the conviction and 14-year prison sentences given in 2010 to two men who were arrested after celebrating their engagement and were charged with unnatural acts and gross indecency.
Then President Bingu wa Mutharika pardoned the couple on "humanitarian grounds only" while insisting they had "committed a crime against our culture, against our religion, and against our laws."
Mutharika died in office in April. Banda, who was vice president, stepped in to serve out his term which ends in 2014.
Elsewhere in her speech, Banda said her government wants to normalize relations with "our traditional development partners who were uncomfortable with our bad laws."
Banda's speech was applauded by human rights activists, but they cautioned getting the necessary backing from parliament won't be easy.
"The issue of homosexuality has been a contentious issue," said human rights activist Undule Mwakasungula. "Definitely it will raise controversy in parliament."
In South Africa, the only African country with laws protecting gay rights, activist Mark Heywood said Banda would have international support.
"I hope that she is persuasive enough in her own country," Heywood said.
South Africa's 1996 constitution bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. With the constitution's backing, activists have gone to court to ensure laws such as one banning sodomy were overturned. Gays have had the right to marry since 2006 but face discrimination and sometimes violence in South Africa.
"It's really important for other African countries other than South Africa to move in this direction," Heywood said of Banda's move. "Symbolically, I think it is very important for Africa."
In Uganda, lawmaker David Bahati introduced a bill in 2009 that proposed the death penalty for some homosexual acts. The bill drew a firestorm of international condemnation and has yet to become law. Homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda. After the bill was introduced, a Ugandan tabloid published a list of what it called Uganda's "top homos," including the name of a gay activist who was later killed in what some suspect was a hate crime.
Last year, Nigeria's Senate voted in favor of a bill that would criminalize gay marriage, gay advocacy groups and same-sex public displays of affection. Under a newly added portion of the bill, those found guilty of organizing, operating or supporting gay clubs, organizations and meetings could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.
Last month, an anti-gay group in Liberia distributed fliers with a hit list of people who support gay rights. Liberian lawmakers earlier in the year introduced two pieces of legislation that would make homosexuality punishable by possible jail time. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who won the Nobel Peace Prize this year, has vowed to preserve an existing law that makes "voluntary sodomy" a crime.
Also Friday, Banda said in her state of the nation address that she was appointing a commission of inquiry to look into when and how her predecessor Mutharika died, what medical attention he received and the "activities of various individuals during and in managing the transition."
After Mutharika died April 5, the government took two days to confirm his death and to allow Banda to step in. The delay had led to speculation that Banda's rivals were trying to prevent her from becoming president, even though the constitution decrees the vice president should take over.
Bryson reported from Johannesburg.