Stemming the tides of abuse in Zambia

Elizabeth Mwanza, a clinical officer at the Mazabuka Hospital, says most abuse cases stem from young wives who don't submit to their husband’s household and sexual demands. April 2010. (Darcy Wintonyk/CTV)By: Darcy Wintonyk,

Linda Makani was only 10 when her 52-year-old uncle began raping her. Because she was orphaned as an infant, he was Linda’s only father figure, and the man who kept her fed and clothed after the death of her parents. The abuse went on for four years before he was caught red-handed by his wife.

Linda is now one of four young residents at the City of Joy Shelter in Mazabuka, Zambia, a small town west of the capital city of Lusaka. Sheltered from the bright mid-day sun on the concrete patio of one of five large homes still under construction in the sprawling suburban compound, the shy teen sits beading a necklace embossed with peace signs.

“I never want to go home again,” she tells me, her voice soft.

Her uncle, a witch doctor, is now behind bars and faces a minimum of 15 years in prison. Linda just learned she is infected with HIV.

As in Linda’s case, most abuse against women and children in Zambia is at the hands of men in positions of power in their lives — a father, an uncle, a teacher, a pastor. Girls are often blamed for the abuse by their families and the community.

In Pictures: Domestic abuse in Zambia

“They are accused of being the cause. The girls feel guilty. It’s the African way,” says Sister Maria Mazzone, an Italian nun who runs day-to-day operations at the shelter.

Young girls here are especially vulnerable to exploitation by men. While highly desirable for their virgin status, they have few skills to negotiate or control their job or school prospects, sexual experiences, pregnancies, or even whether they contract HIV/AIDS or who they marry.

In Zambia, it is still common practice for witch doctors to prescribe sleeping with a virgin as a cure for HIV and AIDS.

“Because most women start having sex at age 14 this means the men pounce on children, some as young as four or five,” says Pamela Hamasaka of World Vision Zambia.

Tradition holds strong

The role of tradition is powerful here. Divorce still makes headlines in national newspapers, as do women who refuse sex to their husbands.

Sexual abuse and spousal rape is especially rampant. Campaigners believe more than half of Zambian women have suffered domestic abuse, both sexual and physical. But while the country espouses strong conservative family values on the surface, there are few channels to openly discuss sex. In rural areas the problem is compounded: Polygamy is common, and infidelity, most commonly in the form of unprotected sex with multiple women, is seen as the right of any married man.

On the contrary, the punishment for women found cheating on their partners — or even suspected of it — is high. Last month in Mazabuka, a man who suspected his wife of cheating stuck a piece of burning wood into her vagina. Another woman’s private parts were slashed with a machete by a jealous partner. Acid attacks, where a man douses his partner with nitric, hydraulic or sulphuric acid, dissolving the woman’s skin, are on the rise.

Elizabeth Mwanza, a clinical officer at the Mazabuka Hospital, tells me that most wife battery cases she encounters are young wives who are not submitting to their husband’s household and sexual demands.

“In Tonga, the men use animal skins to beat women. One woman’s buttocks were so lacerated she couldn’t even sit,” she said.

Servitude to men is taught from a young age in Zambia. When girls have their first period they are taken into seclusion for a month and taught how to be a woman by an “Alingizi,” a wise older woman. Lessons include traditional family values, how to treat your husband’s family and, of course, how to keep a man happy — including pleasing him sexually.

“When it comes to tradition these women are still in the Stone Age,” Pamela Hamasaka tells me. “They give the girls beads to wear around their waist for their husband’s pleasure. They are like his toys.”

Hamasaka says only the most extreme cases of abuse are ever prosecuted. Most are settled for a nominal fee.

“A man will pay a poor family $250 for raping their young daughter. It’s hush money and it’s shameful.”

But without formal court proceedings, it’s rare that young victims will ever receive the support and counselling services they need to move on with their lives.

“We don’t look at the psychological damage to the child,” said Hamasaka, shaking her head. “Just give them money and forget about it. We expect the child to be okay. They suffer in silence.”

Wife battery

A recent study on gender-based violence from the World Health Organization (WHO) found that more than half of married women in Zambia are abused by their husbands; more than half think it’s justified in certain cases, like infidelity, disrespecting the husband or “as a form of chastisement.” This violence most often takes the form of rape, beating, stabbing, burning, death threats and — at the very extreme — murder.

The idea that men hold the power in the African family continues to contribute to high levels of domestic violence. For women, marriage is often referred to as “shipikisha club,” which means “the enduring club” and emphasizes that partners should suffer in silence any violence or ill treatment.

But if abuse is widespread, the reporting of it is not. Women who come forward to authorities are frequently met with shame, reprisals from family and friends and additional abuse. Even talking about marital problems is grounds for divorce here.

It is this strong social pressure to endure violence at the hands of the men in their life that leaves women unwilling to report incidences of violence, even if that means leaving themselves vulnerable to ongoing psychological and physical assaults, not to mention the risk of HIV infection.

Social pressures aside, most women cannot even leave their violent husbands if they want to. Tradition maintains the woman must be escorted to her parent’s house by her husband. A battered woman who runs to her parents on her own is often sent back to her abusive husband — by her loved ones.

“It’s all a part of traditional values,” Hamasaka says, shaking her head. “It would be a big scandal, a great shame to the family.”

Similarly, a woman who is seen as independent from her husband is seen as a threat — the redistribution of power often leading to alcohol abuse and domestic violence from husbands who feel threatened.

Getting help

Down a dusty road adjacent to the Mazabuka hospital sits the tiny office of A Safer Zambia, or ASAZA, the country’s first ever coordinated response centre for victims of gender-based violence.

The ASAZA program, run by Care International and funded in part by World Vision Canada, is designed be a one-stop shop where victims can receive medical treatment, report abuse, get counselling and obtain free legal advice. It is the only one of its kind in this part of the country. It is also chronically under-funded and understaffed.

“We want women to come here and know that they’re safe and that they’re going to be taken care of. They won’t find prejudice here,” coordinator Grace Mwila tells me.

The three-year pilot project was launched in February 2009. NGOs like ASAZA have become commonplace in a society characterized by deeply embedded patriarchal cultural values, widespread discrimination against women and a lack of women in positions of power.

But the greatest barrier by far for workers here is the fact no woman wants to see her husband jailed. Of the hundreds of domestic abuse cases seen by the facility, there is not one where a woman has gone ahead with charges.

“They have nowhere to go if their husband is jailed,” ASAZA paralegal Boyd Mwanansaluka tells me. “They are left all alone.”

Economic dependence on men is a formidable stumbling block to justice. Defined by their relationship to men, women are regarded as subordinate, their contribution to the home undervalued. Indeed, girls and women still have the social status of children until they marry.

“The woman is enslaved. If she does not withdraw the complaint she cannot eat. Her children will starve,” Insp. Fred Mungaila tells me during an interview at the Mazabuka county jail.

Counsellor Maria Bee says emotions frequently cloud the judgment of battered wives, who change their minds after the tides of anger start subsiding.

“Women always have a soft heart in the end,” she says. “They change their mind when they see their husbands heading to jail.”

Mwanansaluka says when families take great lengths to avoid prosecution it does little to end the violence.

“They’ll say they’ll just sort it out within the family,” he says. “But those are the cases we usually see again and again.”

Most villagers despise the paralegals, says Mwanansaluka, adding that they see them as interfering with private matters and going against village traditions.

“When you report a case to ASAZA they hate you. They hate the way the cases are treated. They hate us.”

The problem with law

Most lawmakers in Zambia have no formal training in dealing with complaints of violence. As a result, many women are encouraged by police to withdraw their complaints and reconcile.

But in general, law personnel are not equipped to handle the complaints of women and children. Discriminatory attitudes of police and members of the judiciary have led to a lack of confidence in law enforcement, which has led to an under-reporting of rape and other crimes, according to World Vision, the agency closest to ASAZA.

The Mazabuka Police Department has two officers assigned to work in ASAZA’s newly formed Victim Support Unit (VSU), specifically to aid victims of abuse. The officers are trained to be sensitive to the victims and understand the laws that will see abusers detained or charged.

Mungaila, close to retirement after 32 years on the job, tells me he finds it frustrating that cases are rarely prosecuted. He believes the fundamental human rights of women are lost when cases are dropped.

“In Africa there are very few women that work. If she was she could take a different approach. She can live on her own, live independently, say ‘enough is enough’ and take her abuser to court and know she won’t be destitute,” he said.

Const. Caroline Nanounegwe says the differences she has seen since ASAZA entered the community are tangible.

“People these days are coming forward more,” she says. “They apprehend suspects and bring them to police. Women threaten their husbands with coming to us and it seems to stop some of the abuse.”

Mungaila agrees the threat of prosecution is helping, even if the cases don’t make it to court.

“When people see the consequence of a jail term they begin taking it seriously. But it takes a long time to change tradition.”


This hesitancy to prosecute caused a shift in ASAZA’s mandate not long after setting up shop. Instead of focusing on bringing abusers before the courts, the agency tries to reconcile couples.

“Our role is not to split apart a couple or break up marriages,” Grace Mwila explains.

“We only bring in the law when the woman is in harm’s way.”

The agency takes the unprecedented step of sending couples to marriage counselling after the first abuse complaint is brought in by community workers or police. But the increase in counselling can’t all be attributed to goodwill and a desire for reconciliation. If men do not attend the sessions they run the risk of being the subject of a police warrant, followed by an arrest and possible criminal charge.

While the idea of couples counselling is commonplace in North America, it is a new concept in Zambia.

“For many couples, this is the first time they will ever talk about the state of their marriage,” Paralegal Jeremiah Mumbula says.

In many cases, Mumbula said men don’t even know beating their wives is against the law. The majority have never been taught to treat women as equals or value the work that they do.

Mumbula says the sessions usually bring couples closer together.

“When they leave this office they are smiling. That feels good.”

Abuse survivor West Michelo, who was once banished from her home for weeks after talking back to her husband, told me her marriage wouldn’t have survived without the counselling she received here.

“Now if I see anything funny I tell him I’ll go back to ASAZA and he listens,” she says.

Changing traditions

The ASAZA centre doesn’t just provide a short-term lifeline for victims — it also aims to change the societal conditions that brought them there in the first place. Last year, it launched the country’s largest-ever campaign against gender violence: “Abuse. Just stop it!” It features public service announcements, billboards and magazine advertisements and a television show, “Woman to Woman,” that gives an insightful look at the personal experiences of abuse victims.

The showpiece of the campaign is a national radio show airing every Saturday night that teaches Zambians about laws against spousal abuse while offering citizens a voice to ask questions about their own domestic situations without the fear of reprisal from family or the community. The call-in show reaches an estimated 3.9 million people every week.

“Men call and ask if they are justified to beat their wife if they spend the household money on hairdressing,” psycho-social counsellor Winnie Mwale Nyaanwa says. “And the strangest thing is they just don’t know the answer.”

Nyaanwa says the majority of Zambians are ignorant of the laws but become empowered after listening to the show.

“The man usually sees the error in his ways,” she says. “The people who listen tell others. It’s a slow process but it’s working.”

Changing Traditions

Across the board, ASAZA workers agree they are seeing changes in the community. One of their biggest successes is the ongoing sessions to educate the village headmen, reputedly the most traditional and stubborn men in the country, about the ills of gender violence.

William Mpeta, head of ASAZA’s men’s network and a self-professed former wife abuser, has already trained 35 area headmen about battery laws and the rights of women. Cherished as the most respected man in an already highly patriarchal society, Mpeta says when the headman believes in equality for women in the village the whole tribe is likely to follow suit.

“Sensitizing clan headmen has done a lot in communities to boost the reporting of violence,” he says.

But it’s not a widespread success. Most headmen still have multiple wives and cling on to traditions closely.

“For chiefs this process is a real eye-opener,” Mwila says. “We respect their tradition but they are realizing there are cases in customary law that must be prosecuted, and that are wrong.”

Mpeta insists the group is not trying to change tradition.

“We’re trying to remind them what they’ve forgotten — women aren’t to be slaves. They are to be loved. We want to create an atmosphere of love.”

Ending the violence would go a long way to bettering Zambia as a whole, he says.

“A child in the home grows better if there is love between parents. It’s a fact.”

The end?

In October 2010, the brightly painted doors of the ASAZA office will close to the public and workers will begin compiling the results of the three-year study.

Grace Mwila hopes funding will come through to start a second phase of the project, because she believes the group’s work is far from completed.

“At the end of the day I hope — we all hope — these cases of abuse will end and we won’t even have to exist,” she says. “But until then the distance needed to travel to break traditional barriers is great, and we need more time.”

As for victims like Linda Makan that are assisted by the program, there is still comfort in knowing that her attacker could face jail time.

“I feel safe now,” she says. “I’m no longer afraid.”

Darcy Wintonyk travelled to Africa on a fellowship funded by the Canadian International Development Agency and administered through the Jack Webster Foundation.

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