The Ties That Bind…

hands_tiedA colleague of mine arrived at the office with a shocking tale this week. Whilst bringing his young daughter to school he witnessed a crowd of men single out a lone female making her way to work. She happened to be dressed in a skirt and tights, a sight that would barely merit a second glance in most cities of the world (and indeed many parts of Lusaka). On this occasion however, one member of the crowd determined that what she was wearing was immodest and it didn’t take long before a very large mob had surrounded her – haranguing her and tearing at her clothes. But for the speedy intervention of a couple of nearby taxi drivers who whisked her away, she would undoubtedly have been stripped, beaten and perhaps worse.

The sorry story is shocking for any number of reasons. Shocking for my colleague to have his young daughter witness such violence on an bustling Lusaka street corner on a Tuesday morning. Shocking that this kind of attack on a lone woman is not unheard of. Before we go any further, I guess should make a few things clear: Zambia is not a fundamentalist Muslim state with obscenity police roaming the streets, in fact it is a dominantly Christian society albeit with some reasonably conservative  social values (on the surface at least) and it is true that women are encouraged to dress modestly.

To my eyes, however, this incident has far more to say about the place of women in Zambian society than any level of religious devoutness. “Gender imbalance” is not a term I would have recognised before my time here – but you can’t help but begin to understand some of its implications when they are staring you in the face. Zambian culture is unquestionably patriarchal with many of the biases that exist against women in traditional culture still having resonance in the minds of Zambians today.

Almost all women attend formal initiation ceremonies, either in rural areas at the time of puberty (where girls can be taken from their family for up to  a month) or their urban equivalent “kitchen parties” (think hen party/bridal shower). During these events, women are consistently schooled in how best to please their man, to understand that his sexual advances should always be accommodated and to understand and accept his infidelity. Anything less would merely seem to be asking for a divorce.

As a result, infidelity amongst Zambian men is almost universally accepted (even expected). In a recent survey, only 12% of women agreed that “married men should only have sex with their wives.” It is at its most obvious in the polygamous tribes of the Southern province but an informal polygamy is prevalent across the entire nation. The inverse is far less acceptable and husbands can apply for divorce merely on the suspicion of their wife having an affair.  Interestingly that doesn’t appear to be a total deterrent with only 32% of women in the same survey stating that “married women should only have sex with their husbands”

Shockingly, violence against women in the home is equally accepted with over 2/3 of women stating in the last national survey that wife beating was justified for at least one of the given reasons. Despite the extremely low levels of reported rape (just over 200 in 2008) over 15% of women report having suffered forced sex at some time and the true figure is probably much higher still. At the same time, women are in a very weak position to escape from violent partners as “property grabbing” traditional customs state that divorced women shall loose their assets to the husband’s family.

These many social and cultural biases against women serve to leave them as the most vulnerable grouping to the HIV pandemic in Zambia today. Often they are unable to negotiate safe sex (even when they know their husbands philandering puts them at risk of HIV infection). Many times they will avoid determining their HIV status to avoid being blamed for bringing the virus into the house and facing certain divorce. For those brave souls who do test and begin treatment, stories of hiding their medications in the kitchen to avoid beatings are quite common.

My female friends assure me that some of these cultures are changing with women tolerating less of these types of behaviour. But they equally agree that it is a painfully slow process and that some very negative attitudes persist, certainly in the rural population but also with surprising frequency amongst the educated and urban. Unless and until these values change, in these many small and large ways, tradition and culture will continue to bind Zambian women to a position of extreme vulnerability.

One Response to “The Ties That Bind…”
  1. Sanjani Shah says:

    Hi Berkeley, a very sad story indeed. Imaging how the poor woman felt.

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