By Malama Katulwende
The Zambian media reports horrific scenes of domestic violence against women and girl children almost on a daily basis. Although this abuse differs widely in form and severity, cause and context, the trauma which women and girl-children generally endure renders them emotionally, sexually, physically and psychologically scarred for life. In some cases, the violence leaves the victims dead.
In a case which has baffled some human rights activists Ngenda Mutolo 31, a known television personality and Muvi Television News reader recently withdrew her civil case against her husband, Ngenda Mwanangombe 50, who allegedly beat her and occasioned bodily harm. In a similar incident which shocked the entire nation Musonda Manda, of Lusaka, was severely battered by her husband over her refusal to let him read ‘suspicious’ text messages from her mobile phone. On 14th July 2007 she was reported to have withdrawn the case from the court and, like Ngenda, “reconciled” with her husband.
The issue here is not whether forgiveness and reconciliation ought to be discouraged, but whether men who are quick to use the fist and brute force against women and children ought to go unpunished. How does the withdrawal of civil cases from the courts offer a holistic approach to violence against women and children and provide a wide range of remedies for victims and penalties for perpetrators? How does this withdrawal help the fight against gender based violence?
To be sure, occurrences of domestic gender-based violence against women and girl-children are on the increase in Zambia. The violence takes the form of emotional, sexual, physical and psychological abuse. Where this battery is especially physical, the victims are prone to suffering very serious injuries which sometimes lead to death.
There are a number of sources which have collected primary data of women killed by men from the 1970s to the present, as well as quantitative data on cases of violence against women in general. The Central Statistical Office (CSO), the Police Victim Support Unit, and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), for example, suggest that there’s no doubt that violence against women is a very serious problem in Zambia.
To take a historic look at the tragic scenario, the CSO’s survey indicates that at least 53% of the 5, 029 women interviewed reported having experienced some form of gender-based violence at one time or the other since they were fifteen. Of these the most vulnerable groups were married women in general, and also rural or uneducated women who, according to the “Living Conditions Monitoring Survey Report 2004″ , bore higher incidences of poverty as education and poverty were found to be correlates.
Similar studies conducted by Sarah Longwe, Linah Mpundu Musukuma, M.C Milimo, Engiwe Mzyece, et al, suggest that violence against women and girl children (which cuts across age, religion, ethnic grouping, education status and location), ought to be understood in the context of the poor social-economic status of women in general and strong patriarchal beliefs which reinforce men’s dominance over women and girls in everything.
In respect of marriage, domestic violence and its perpetuation is more likely to thrive in cases where women have fewer economic and financial opportunities to make decisions to leave abusive relationships. The situation has been further complicated by the HIV/AIDS pandemic as women, whenever they are HIV- positive, are being divorced or abused by their male spouses.
The case of Ngenda Mutolo, the Muvi television presenter who counsels married women on Spit it Out program is puzzling. How does an educated woman who earns a living by working at a television station withdraw a case of abuse against her by her husband? As a public figure and marriage counsellor one would have expected Ngenda to proceed with the case and let the judge mete out whatever punishment he or she saw fit. By withdrawing the case, however, Ngenda Mutolo has betrayed the fight against wife battery and gender based violence against women and girls.
Yet there are thousands of abused women and girls across the breadth and width of our country – who are being raped, killed and abused every second. Their voices are not heard, and their tears are never dry, and they are looking up to someone to free them from the tyranny of some men. Behind every smile and face of a Zambian woman there’s a heart that fervently beats for justice. But the struggle for gender equality – which Ngenda has betrayed – is not about women and girl-children alone – it is a national fight, it is everyone’s fight. It is about standing up for the rights of our fellow human-beings who have carried the burden and weight of oppression for too long…It is about taking an affirmative action to better the lot of the marginalized.
Had Mutolo gone ahead with the case, she might have saved and liberated thousands of abused women, some of whom are public figures like her, who might have drawn courage from her action and fought the terror to come out in the open and demand justice in their marriages. But, nay, she instead chose to be beaten – as a submissive wife, perhaps, for the sake of material comfort and keeping the status of “being married”.
In order to understand this better, consider the “wise counsel” of the alangizi, the marriage counsellors who counsel brides-to-be on marriage:
“Women should be subordinated to their husbands at all times…If a wife is beaten, it is because her husband loves her and wants to correct her wrong and instil discipline…If a man has not slapped you, then he doesn’t love you …’
Such cultural nonsense is the teaching which has been handed over to us from our forefathers. On the other hand, are these precepts justifiable in the context of justice and human rights? The answer is, “Hell no.” We therefore need to challenge the institution of marriage itself.
But this is not all . We also have schools and curricula ( as laboratories of human capital ) which usually assign roles to girls as house wives . And when it comes to study most teachers would say:
“Girls are not good at the sciences such as physics, mathematics, chemistry and the like. They are perhaps better at languages and the arts.”
In consequence, the educator would not be concerned if girl-children performed badly in sciences. In fact, girls are not generally expected to do as well as boys. Furthermore, the Ministry of Education also expects girl children to score fewer points in their examinations than boy children because girls (implicitly), can’t compete against boys.
The question is: does this not help create negative stereo-types against women and girl children? It does.
Yet we should also challenge the courts. Almost all the local court rooms in Zambia which have continued the use of the ‘customary law’ do not recognize women as independent people and shapers of their own destiny. The local judge is often ignorant of international conventions and protocols on women’s rights. And how easily accessible are the courts by women? Well, the answer is: it’s tough for women to seek legal counsel, or face male judges who look at them with a look that says: “What do you want against us, men?”
Moreover, women are generally poor and can’t afford legal fees or sustain a legal process for long. We’ve heard women say when domestic violence has been reported, most male police officers are not sympathetic to their plight – they just don’t care. In fact, these officers torture women with questions and attitudes which suggest that the women are either lying, or that the police officers believe that it’s alright to beat up women in a home. Most women are therefore reluctant to report cases of domestic violence because “the law will not protect them”.
Then the relatives, friends and church people who are close to abused women would ask: “If you take your husband to court and he’s jailed, who’ll look after you and take care of the kids? How will you start over again?” The prospect of an uncertain future terrifies most abused women. Thus they fall back into a state of learned helplessness in which they choose to stay in an abusive relationship because they feel ‘there’s no better alternative’.
We need, therefore, to empower women so that they become economically independent and less vulnerable to abuse. Is the new Patriotic front government helping in this direction, you’d ask? Our response is – Something is being done but, unfortunately, not enough. The guys in politics are more interested in power and their personal interests. The womenfolk are quite alone.
For now, though, the key question to ask is: “How can I, as an individual, help change the lot of an abused woman in Zambia? How can I put a smile on her face so that her life would be worth living?”