The 25th of November each year is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. It is the start of an annual campaign that goes on for 16 days and aims to raise awareness about gender based violence; strengthen work around violence against women; provide a forum to share new and effective strategies and to demonstrate the solidarity of women and men around the world organizing to say no more violence against women. But real change will take more than the initial sixteen days.
Violence against women is a violation of human rights. The theme for this year’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is: “From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let’s Challenge Militarism and End Violence against Women!” This focus offers an opportunity to renew Zambia’s commitment to freeing women from violence wherever it may occur. It is important that we strengthen our shared commitment and action to prevent and respond to the attitudes and practices that perpetuate this situation. We encourage the Government, civil-society organisations and the business sector to work together to broaden the impact of the campaign. By supporting this campaign, many thousands of Zambians can help to increase awareness of abuse, contribute to stopping abuse and building support for those who have been subjected to abuse. We are also encouraged by the traditional chiefs who have already taken this as core to their role and agenda, to bring about change in their chiefdoms, by modelling the right behaviours, supporting by-laws that protect women and children from abuse and continue to be a voice of leadership on these issues. We hope all chiefs and local leaders join in and lend their voice to this cause.
Women often experience the harshest deprivations in poor communities throughout the world. They are more likely to be malnourished, endure lower paying jobs, and are less likely to complete school or have access to proper medical care, even when giving birth. Marginalising women in these ways directly impacts the health and wealth of an entire nation, stunting a country’s human development growth and its prosperity. Gender based violence is not a phenomenon that is limited to the poorer parts of society. It is driven by unequal power relations between men and women and a reflection of the low status and negative attitudes towards women, at all income levels. However, in highly vulnerable situations that are exacerbated by poverty, a way out is also blocked and access to the right services to redress the abuse is limited.
According to a Zambia Government Report published in 2000, violence against women and children is linked strongly to the socio-economic situation of households, but is quite pervasive in all spheres of society. The 2007 Zambia Demographic and Health Survey (ZDHS) data indicates that almost half (47%) of all Zambian women have experienced physical violence since the age of 15; and one in five Zambian women have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. Almost half of the girls who experienced physical or sexual abuse did not seek help – and of these, six percent never told anyone about it. Teenage pregnancy, some of which is an outcome of sexual violence, is alarmingly high in Zambia – 30% of the 15-19 year old girls surveyed were found to be pregnant or already raising children.
Zambia’s dual legal system limits women’s rights of access to, and control over, productive resources and places barriers to the achievement of gender equality. Freedoms provided for under the Constitution are undermined by customary laws. The Constitution protects women against discrimination under Article 11. However, Article 23(4) invalidates this guarantee by allowing the application of customary law in matters of personal law (i.e. marriage, divorce, and devolution of property). A review and repeal of this article could bring relief to many women who otherwise have their rights and freedoms curtailed. Where traditions and customs are positive and empowering, respectful and inspiring, they must be treasured and passed on through the ages. Where certain traditional practices and customs hurt or disempower, they must be turned away. Communities are made up of people, and people change. A society’s positive evolution holds on to what is strong, and rejects or changes that which it no longer considers a good practice.
For too long gender based violence has remained a private burden that was rarely acknowledged and rarely addressed. However, the Government of Zambia has brought this into the public domain and passed the Anti Gender Based Violence Act this year, which is a milestone in Zambian jurisprudence, and is a response to long-standing efforts and activism of non government groups, community outreach and the women’s movement. Now, it is about implementation. This Act recognises that a multi sector and multi stakeholder approach is essential to combating Gender Based Violence.
Together with a robust legal system, a comprehensive effort to address the issues and bring about change will also involve addressing these issues early on through schools, improvements in education and employment opportunities so girls can stay on to complete secondary school, general HIV and AIDS-awareness and public health campaigns, equal access to credit and land so women are empowered to take more control over their own lives. Police, courts and psychosocial counselling services that address the issues of both men and women when it comes to abuse, whether as victim or perpetrator, is a critical part of the response. It is such a multi faceted approach that can break the vicious cycle of gender-based violence.
The Embassy of Ireland and the United Nations Country Team in Zambia, will host a joint seminar marking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The seminar will bring together key stakeholders including representatives from Government, Cooperating Partners and Civil Society Organisations to share practices, to learn from each other, and to be a part of a larger network that works together to address these issues. The programme will include a keynote speaker from the region, Mr. Mbuyiselo Botha of the Sonke Gender Justice Network, who will be sharing progress and successes on what other countries have done in responding to GBV. The seminar will also focus on the significance of the recently passed GBV Act, and how all stakeholders can accelerate progress in responding to GBV in Zambia. We, as the Government of Ireland, and the United Nations System, remain committed to supporting Zambia’s national and local efforts to end violence against women and children. It takes a nation to act together, to say no more gender based violence. We will support these efforts alongside other stakeholders’ to ensure a Zambia in which all people enjoy their full human rights and can realise their full potential.
*Kanni Wignaraja is UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative and Tony Cotter is Ambassador of Ireland, in Zambia