Stopping marital abuse in Zambia

By Chanda Katongo | December 04th, 2012
16 Days of Activism to end violence against women and girls
16 Days of Activism to end violence against women and girls

Cleopatra Tembo is 26. She lives in Zambia’s Matero Township. And she is routinely beaten by her husband. Cleopatra says she is hit for no apparent reason. Or rather she is beaten for doing things like going to the market in the evening, leaving the house without permission or cooking a late meal.

Cleopatra did not want to say much about the situation. But she did tell me that her husband beats her when he’s drunk – and that she is not brave enough to report him to authorities because she is scared that he may lose his job as a teacher.

However, Cleopatra added that she is not alone. Her family, neighbours and others in the community know that her husband batters her, but no one is brave enough to report her husband. Indeed, Cleopatra’s family often encourages her not to report her husband, while assuring her that one day he will stop hitting her. Sadly – that is extremely unlikely. Abusers seldom stop abusing their victims of their own accord.

Even more sadly – Cleopatra is not alone. Zambia’s shocking statistics show that gender based violence (GBV) is rife. Over 11,000 cases of GBV were recorded across the country in 2011 – ranging from assault to battery to rape to incest to murder. And this figure does not tell the whole story because many cases of GBV still go unreported – due to the culture of silence in Zambia regarding GBV and particularly domestic abuse, which many people view as part and parcel of daily life.

And it is not just wife beating. According to figures from the Zambia Demographic Health Survey of 2007, 20 percent of Zambian women have experienced sexual violence – and 42 percent of them were attacked by their husbands or partners.

Counsellors and NGOs have been working to sensitise couples and communities in the hope of reducing the level of sexual and physical abuse – but they are making very little progress. The reality is that it is extremely difficult to tackle gender based violence in a country that is still so deeply conservative, traditional and religious – and so patriarchal.

The answer is for a concerted and coordinated effort by all players. “Policy makers and other government officials should work hand in hand with civil society, the church, traditional counsellors and members of communities to reduce violence against women and children in Zambia,” said Womba Wanki, a member of the feminist organisations, Generation Alive.

But it is also clear that lots of work needs to be done at the community level – to change people’s attitudes and behaviour. For example, Iris Phiri – a counselor and founder of the Zambia National Traditional Counselors Association, which promotes pre-marriage counseling – points out that many women accept abuse from their husbands due to engrained social and cultural beliefs. And that these beliefs must be tackled.

Phiri argues that one way is to teach traditional counsellors about gender issues – and particularly about the danger of GBV – since they have substantial influence in their communities.

“We face a big challenge in terms of gender issues because our traditional counsellors and communities have not been taught properly about these issues,” said Phiri. “We need to be trained about GBV so that we can change the mind-sets of the perpetuators of GBV.”

However, it is also vital to ensure that perpetrators face justice. And currently, the vast majority of abusers get away with their crimes because so many attacks are not reported and because the authorities only manage to prosecute a small percentage of reported cases.

Indeed, according to Zambia’s Victim Support Unit, 8261 cases of gender based violence were reported to the authorities in 2009 – but shockingly, only 22 percent of these were prosecuted.

These statistics show why the campaign to end violence against women and girls appears to be making little headway in Zambia. But that is all the more reason to keep on fighting – to keep on struggling for justice for abuse survivors. And why we commemorate the 16 Days of Activism because we need to keep on speaking out – to break the silence around gender based violence in Zambia and stop the beatings, rapes and murders.

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