Unbridling Zambian women
Zambia has now been independent for over 50 years. What has been achieved, especially for women?The first thing to note is that there is no discrimination against women in the country’s Constitution.Since the first elections in 1990s, women have had the right to vote. Nobody questioned that. No surprise then that Zambian women have played roles on the battlefield and in politics, and also in education, although there is still great inequality.However, many women who grew up during the rule Kenneth Kaunda have suffered from new conservative pressures. These are the “Kaunda children”, products of the period when Kaunda’s party was everywhere.A friend who lives in Ndola, Zambia narrated to me how his father was a civil servant and his mother was active in the local women’s organization of the Kaunda party’s bureaucracy, which was common for civil servants’ wives. Her position in the organisation followed her husband’s position at work. These wives were also active in the United National Independence Party. The United National Independence Party was active from the capital right down to the village level.The United National Independence Party teams, comprising community leaders’ and officials’ wives, organized various activities that defined women as creatures of the domestic realm.
School was another place where Zambian women were indoctrinated with conservative ideas.They were taught how women, through United National Independence Party were pillars of the state and pioneers for the motherland.All women who were national leaders turned into a symbol of such conservatism, a figure demure in Zambia’s traditional dress, depicting them as the ideal feminine daughter.Despite more Zambian women moving into politics and higher education, the United National Independence Party experience continued to define women as essentially creatures of the domestic space. From public gatherings to schools, to markets,the individual woman and her rights were extensively discussed in Zambia. When Kaunda fell in 1991, one product of this activist ferment gave birth to the movement for a quota of women in political parties and the parliament. There was only minimal opposition from the patriarchy as women’s votes were important. Another product of the reforma period was the establishment of organisations to tackle violence against women.In the public sphere, Zambian women have made many positive achievements. But let’s look at the everyday problems still encountered by many.If you are a woman under the age of 25 in Zambia, you will often encounter the question, “Are you married yet?” To not be married is still seen as something strange and unnatural, an avoidance of a woman’s natural destiny.This continues even as there are more women who don’t marry, or decide not to have children, especially in big cities like Lusaka.This aggressive assertion that a Zambian woman has a natural destiny to which she must conform to not only impacts the unmarried woman, but also those who have married.In my couple of visits to Zambia, one time i heard a woman caressing another’s tummy with “Something inside, possibly?” and bottomline, a married woman in Zambia whose tummy is not flat can often incur this invasion of physical territory.
Relating to each other as one womb to another, rather than as one human to another, is assumed to be something natural among many Zambian women.All these behaviors are imposed from childhood, with women themselves having no say in accepting them or not. Women are still defined as the wife or the mother in Zambia, someone who is aware of the limits imposed upon her by her alleged natural destiny.Friends who have chosen to remain single or have no children are often motivated by their commitment to work, their profession or other endeavors. They are often the backbone of families and often sustain even the extended family. They realize how difficult it is to materially support a family and meet the needs of children in today’s world, especially when living in cities like Lusaka. So, consciously, Zambian women choose to have just one child or not to have children at all.We see it too in a broader context, how thousands of women are allowed to fly to distant lands to work. They leave their children and their husband and his extended family to earn a living for their family. Family, village, Zambia all gladly accept the contributions from the labor of these women without ever questioning how the state works. And still, it is the man or the husband who is positioned as the family head who determines the direction of family life.And so, the first question to a woman should not just be are you married yet or not but where are you working or doing business or what are you doing these days as would be asked of a man.As long as Zambian women are seen as having a narrowly defined natural destiny, they will not be able to enjoy fundamental freedoms. Only when women are fully seen as equal human beings, defined only by what they are able to do and achieve, will they have real rights including but not limited to freedom to work, freedom from violence and sexual harassment and freedom from a sexist culture.