Women’s Rights in Zambia – Uncovering what is meant to be hidden

Reproduced with kind permission from Artwork by Zambian artist Mwamba Mulangala

Reproduced with kind permission of Zambian artist Mwamba Mulangala.

Zambia is a republic of 13.3 million people, governed by a president and a unicameral national assembly. The nation has strong and stable economy, it has experienced increasing growth over the past 5 years. However it remains a long way away from achieving gender equality.

In 2007, a Demographic Health Survey was carried out to evaluate Human Right’s conditions throughout Zambia. The results of the survey were staggering. Results of the survey showed that almost half of all women had experienced physical violence since they were 15. Of which, about 77% reported that the accused was their current or former husband/partner. Researchers concluded that a factor that contributes to the prevalence and tolerance of domestic violence is the acceptance of violence in general community. Shockingly, the survey found that a large number of both women (62%) and men (48%) hold the belief that the husband is justified in hitting or even beating his wife under certain circumstances.

quote2There is no specific law against domestic violence or spousal abuse. Recently however, women have been playing larger roles in actively contributing to the household income and food. Zambian families living in rural areas often experience food shortages due to extreme weather conditions during certain times of the year. Many women have taken it upon themselves to embrace farming and be as productive as possible by diversifying both crops and livestock. UNDP undertook an initiative to train staff at the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, who will in turn train smallholder farmers, many of whom are women, in sustainable farming techniques. As a result of this initiative, many of the women have become beekeepers and are using more productive and environmentally friendly methods to produce a variety of crops.

Penalties for assault can range from a mere fine to 25 years in prison. This is dependent on the severity of injury and whether a weapon was used during the assault. The UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Rashida Manjoo, reported that “the general population seems to condone violence as a way to solve conflicts, particularly within the domestic sphere”.

Police are often reluctant to take up cases of domestic violence, thus the Victim Support Unit (VSU) in Zambia was responsible for handling reports of domestic assault and wife beating. The VSU handles most gender-based violence cases as they are reported to them. Despite the fact that the law prohibits rape, the 2007 study showed that rape and other forms of sexual assault were common. According to a Country Report on Human Rights in Zambia (undertaken by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor), there were few rape convictions as a result of ineffective law enforcement.

In 2009, the VSU recorded 244 cases of rape, 60 cases of attempted rape, and 188 cases of indecent assault. Of these cases, 111 defendants were convicted, 22 were acquitted, and 25 cases were withdrawn. However, the law does not specifically prohibit spousal rape, and the penal codes that criminalize rape cannot be used in sexual assault cases to prosecute cases of spousal rape. This lack of government regulation on spousal assault is especially detrimental to Zambian women and the efforts many have been making to improve gender-equality. Women will continue to find their rights violated and subject to social pressure of accepting this kind of violent behavior, contributing to the vicious cycle of violence and abuse.

Four Seasons by Zambian artist Mwamba Mulangala

Four Seasons by Zambian
artist Mwamba Mulangala

The government and NGOs present in Zambia have expressed much concern about violence against women. Women often experience fear of retribution as well as cultural considerations which deters them from reporting cases of domestic violence. Therefore, the real extent of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) remains unclear. Fortunately, however, there has recently been an increase in public awareness of domestic violence which resulted in more reporting of these incidents to authorities. Increased effort from the government includes the operation of SGBV shelters, a toll-free hotline, and eight one-stop centers to provide assistance to victims of sexual and gender-based violence.

In 2009, Zambian authorities provided SGBV training to more than 300 police officers. Scarcity of information related to family planning for women and families in general has led to discrimination against women in their right to reproductive autonomy. Financial as well as cultural limitations restrict women’s’ access to contraception and experienced medical assistance during childbirth, including prenatal, obstetric, and postpartum care. UNICEF estimated that the maternal mortality rate was 590 per 100,000 live births between the years 2003 and 2008. However, these rates have improved recently.


quote 1 srhIn 2013, the mortality rate decreased to 280 per 100,000 live births. Additionally, women have increasingly been seeking and successfully receiving HIV testing and treatment. According to the 2007 Demographics and Health survey published by the Central Statistical Office, 46% of Zambian women aged 20-40 were married by time they were 18. 11.6% of these women were married by 15. Child marriage is far more common in rural areas as well as under customary law. Under formal law, the minimum age to marry is 16 years old. Child marriage is an issue particularly because young girls are more vulnerable to cases of abuse and violence. Ironically, the law equates men and women. In reality, Zambian women often experience discrimination in employment, education, and land and property ownership. Employed women often experience unequal conditions of work, including a pay inequity.

Gender based violence is intricately hidden in Zambian society where family planning is still mainly decided by the male.

Gender based violence is intricately hidden in Zambian society where family planning is still mainly decided by the male.

Despite efforts made by the Ministry of Lands to fix the imbalance in property ownership between men and women, women generally lack access to credit because women mostly depend on their husbands or the dominant male family members to cosign for loans as a traditional practice. Thus, few women own their own homes, land, or businesses. The government has been making some effort in improving the status of women through establishing ministries like The Ministry of Women, Gender, and Development and the Gender in Development Division. These agencies are mainly responsible for promoting the status of women. The MOWGD coordinates gender policy while the GIDD plans, coordinates, and implements gender programs and policies across ministries.

With regards to local customary law, it generally discriminates against women. Despite constitutional and legal protections, customary law undermines women with respect to property ownership, inheritance, and marriage. Polygamy is legal under customary law. For example, “sexual cleansing” is a cultural ritual in which a widow is forced to have sexual relations with her late husband’s relatives as part of a cleansing ritual. However, many local leaders have banned this practice and according to this article which was published in 2014 on Anadolu Agency (a Turkish press agency), the Zambian government planned to ban this ritual in order “to curb the rampant spread of HIV”. However, there is little evidence that the government officially banned this practice.

Furthermore, customary law states that the right to inherit land rests with the deceased man’s family. This often results in “property-grabbing”, in which the husband’s family illegally take the land from the widow. Rashida Majoo has expressed further concern that the use of customary law contributes to unequal treatment of women in society, and has led to inconsistent application of justice in cases regarding women’s rights.

Elizabeth exercises her rights by being the main bread winner in her household with 7 adopted children and 5 of her own grandchildren.

Elizabeth exercises her rights by being the main bread winner in her household with 7 adopted children and 5 of her own grandchildren.

As efforts continue to increase to improve the status of women in the society, there definitely remains much room for improvement. This can happen with the combined efforts of the government, NGO’s based in Zambia, and most importantly, the population of Zambia. The first step towards positive change from women in Zambia is people recognizing the need for change with respect to Women’s rights. With this, people will make more of an effort to learn more and spread awareness about unequal treatment of women and the importance of allowing women to be properly represented in politics, the economy, and society in general. It is especially important for men in Zambian communities to partake in spreading awareness and learning about the importance of female empowerment. This, in turn, will create opportunities for women to become strong and powerful female role models for the youth of the nation, particularly young girls. Hopefully, this will promote equal treatment and increased respect for women’s rights in work, family, and politics.


Zambia to ban ‘sexual cleansing’ rituals

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are not necessarily that of Humanity Africa. Humanity Africa has no political nor religious affiliations.

*Zeina Haidar is an undergraduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is working as a volunteer at Humanity Africa as part of her study abroad program in London. Zeina is a Lebanese-American student, who grew up in the United Arab Emirates. She is studying Molecular Biology at UCLA and is passionate about medical innovation. She is also interested in writing, history, Game of Thrones, and trying to get a grip on adulthood.