Zambia: The Vexing Problem of Violence Against Women


Shadreck Banda wanted to punish his wife. The couple had gotten into an argument about dinner. Banda wanted nshima, a traditional Zambian porridge, with roasted pork; but his wife, Beatrice Zulu, had foregone the pork and cooked beans instead. After his wife had lain down, Banda erupted into a fit of vengeance, picked the piping pot of beans off the fire and poured it onto her.

Zulu died from the burns a month later.

Banda’s crime, recounted in court documents, typifies Zambia’s stubbornly persistent problem with gender-based violence, a catchall category ranging from domestic abuse and rape to economic disempowerment. Zambia suffers from some of the highest rates of gender-based violence in the world, advocates say. International efforts to eradicate the scourge have made headway, but the violence remains stubbornly persistent despite millions in foreign aid.

Zambia’s battle against gender-based violence came to the fore during the United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women this month. The country’s leaders highlighted initiatives in recent years to end forced marriage, lift women out of poverty and bring perpetrators to justice. Even though serious questions about the effectiveness of programs remain, advocates say the push has paid dividends.

Complaints about gender-based violence to Zambian police have been rising, but it’s difficult to tell whether that means the problem is growing worse or if survivors feel more comfortable stepping forward. “It’s a very, very difficult question,” David Walker, a research fellow at a London-based think tank, said when asked whether gender-based violence in Zambia had declined. But, Walker added, the efforts are “definitely, in my view, making a change for the good,” with the quality and quantity of services improving.

Government surveys suggest more than half of all Zambian women have experienced some form of violence, but the true figure is probably higher. Mark Kelly, the national director of World Vision’s Zambia operation, said he worked in places where two in three women reported being victims.

In response, Zambia has taken a series of steps. It passed laws to clamp down on offenders and established special courts to speed up the judicial process. It launched programs to teach boys to show more respect toward girls and women. Officials set up a women’s bank to incorporate them into the financial sector and strengthened their role in commerce by getting them resources like modern farming equipment. And the government borrowed tens of millions of dollars from the World Bank to increase education for girls.

The United Nations has also lent a hand, funding a series of all-inclusive resource centers in the eastern and western parts of the country. Known as “one-stop centers,” they offer legal support, counseling and psychosocial services, among other things, and have been hailed as models for other countries to replicate.

But for this land-locked country in Southern Africa, deep-rooted customs and gender expectations present major hurdles. Beating up one’s spouse is traditionally considered a sign of love. As in other countries, Zambian women fear that reporting crimes will expose them to stigma and ostracism, or hurt them financially if their husbands go to prison. There is also a tendency for authorities to turn a blind eye. One woman who worked in schools there in the 1970s and 1980s said it was not uncommon for male teachers to have sex with or even impregnate students with little consequence.

Nalucha Ziba, the country director for Grassroot Soccer, a health organization with programs in Zambia, said many people there didn’t know what sorts of crimes constituted gender-based violence. “They thought it was a normal way of life, having their father beat up their mother every weekend when he comes back from having a beer,” she said.

Ineffective governance has also hobbled the crackdown. Service providers lack enough transportation and gasoline to reach many rural stretches of Zambia. Chiefs hold tremendous sway over village affairs, making disputes more likely to be settled out of court. President Edgar Lungu drew stinging rebukes last year after he pardoned a famous singer convicted of raping a 14-year-old girl and then appointed him as the country’s ambassador in the fight against gender-based violence.

Even as Zambia encourages survivors of gender-based violence to step forward, the country’s poorly trained and understaffed police force appear underequipped for the surge in caseloads. Of the 14,097 gender-based crimes reported in 2014, only 1,247 resulted in conviction, a rate of less than 10 percent, according to government figures.

Police are “completely overwhelmed and under-resourced,” said Walker, whose think thank, the Overseas Development Institute, published a study of one-stop centers last year. The level of training police get, particularly for GBV, is negligible, if any, he said. “There might be one training every two or three years that maybe one person from every department from a local area will be able to attend.”

That’s what makes Banda’s case unusual. His pouring of hot beans over Zulu caused second and third-degree burns over her head, face, chest and abdomen, according to court documents. Zulu was hospitalized in Kabwe, where she stayed for a month before dying in the summer of 2015. Banda never visited her in the hospital, a fact that weighed on the Zambian High Court’s decision in February to convict him of murder. “It is also odd that the accused would not visit his wife of 27 years, whom he said he loved, during the period of about a month when she was admitted in hospital if indeed he was not responsible for her burns,” the judge wrote.

Mwizenge Tembo, a professor of sociology at Bridgewater College in Virginia who has written extensively about Zambia, called gender-based violence there a “deeply embedded problem.” He sounded optimistic at the government’s efforts, but said no one solution was panacea.

“It’s very difficult to say, ‘Well let’s just have more cops or lets really educate the men so that we can stop treating women as objects, and can solve their problems,’” he said. “That will help, but I don’t think it will solve the whole problem.”

Twitter: @BrianFreskos

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