Culture of silence over gender violence
Wednesday 2 June 2004
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ZAMBIA: Culture of silence over gender violence

LUSAKA, 1 December (PLUSNEWS) - About 80 percent of Zambian wives find it acceptable to be beaten by their husbands "as a form of chastisement", according to the latest Zambia Demographic Health Survey.

Out of 5,029 women interviewed countrywide, 79 percent said they should be beaten if they went out without their husband's permission. Sixty-one percent said a beating was acceptable if they denied their husbands sex, while 45 percent said a beating was in order if they cooked 'bad' food.

Compounding the abuse was the culture of silence around domestic violence. "This is an aberration - and women are making an abnormality normal," said National AIDS Council director of programmes, Dr Alex Simwanza, when he recently met traditional leaders to urge their support in fighting gender-based violence.

"Zambian wives are living in a sorry state. As far as they are concerned they can be beaten for almost anything. This is a frightening phenomenon," he noted.

Simwanza said most women surveyed did not believe they had sexual or reproductive rights. Quoting the survey, he said 88 percent of women felt their husbands could have sex with them just after giving birth, while 67 percent said they would have sex even though they did not want it.

Simwanza blamed the submissive attitude uncovered in the poll on what is taught to girls during puberty rites.

But custodians of tradition have refused to accept the blame. Gertrude Mulande, a traditional marriage counsellor, believes wife-beating is a "natural consequence" of male-female relationships and must be seen in perspective. She says there is 'chastisement' and 'violence' - two separate issues.

Her organisation, "alangizi", which is made up of traditional counsellors, works closely with community leaders and the police to sensitise women on domestic violence "within the confines of cultural values".

"Yes we teach young girls to expect to be slapped or hit lightly when they err as a form of chastisement, and we also tell them to keep their marital problems within their family circles - but we do not teach them to accept violent beatings, neither do we teach them to suffer in silence," Mulande told PlusNews.

Mulande said in the past women were married off at 16 years or even younger to an older man, who had the right to act as 'chastiser', but it was frowned upon for that to extend to a severe beating. Traditionally, if a woman was badly abused, the matter was taken to family elders and resolved, because men were counselled not to hit their wives as though they were fighting with another man.

"The extended family has become extinct, causing women to air dirty linen in public, and chastisement has turned to brutality. That is not our fault," Mulande said.

Mulande, whose husband had slapped her "a couple of times" during 30 years of marriage, argued that although the statistics revealed that beatings were occurring, this should not be interpreted to mean women were being brutalised in their homes.

One diplomat PlusNews interviewed, based in the capital, Lusaka, agreed. He said domestic fights were common in homes and, even as educated and enlightened as he was, admitted to "roughing up" his wife a couple of times in their 19 years together. He did not know of any wife who could say she had never been slapped or beaten by her husband.

"In the earlier years of marriage when we [men] are still immature, we tend to use force instead of reason, but a beating should never be so severe that that a wife runs away or reports you to the police," he told PlusNews. A father of two daughters, he hopes they will have husbands who are not violent, but is certain that at one point "they will receive a slap".

This is the kind of perception that raises the ire of the national Women's Lobby group, who define violence as any form of force used against women.

"Whether it is a weak slap on the cheek or a powerful fist in the face, it is still violence," explained lobby group member Juliet Chibuta. "There should be no so-called chastisement among equals. In these days of gender awareness and the fight against abuse, it is sad that women are still being subjected to outdated cultural norms."

She added: "The fact that women are admitting that they expect to be beaten for perceived wrongs means we [the lobby] have a long way to go in sensitisation."

Equally perturbed is President Levy Mwanawasa, who recently said the country needed to examine its cultural values that legitimised violence against women. "Any form of domestic violence is a violation human rights and should be stopped," he warned.

Police spokesperson Brenda Mutemba said whether it was chastisement or beating, some women were suffering severe brutality. "We are receiving about five cases of wife battering a day. I cannot say whether it's an increase or just more cases being reported, but there is cause for concern."

There has been a heightened awareness of violence against women since the launch of the annual international campaign of 16 days of activism against gender violence, which kicked off on 25 November. The event is being observed by some 100 countries.

Charles Lwiindi is among 50 members of the "men's travelling conference" who are heading to neighbouring Malawi by bus, making pit-stops to talk about gender violence with communities on the way.

Lwiindi, who has been married for 11 years, admitted he hit his wife once, but had never done so again. "You live with someone whom you know is physically weaker than you are, the temptation to impose your will or dominance by force is great. For many it is the first time they are in a position of strength in all their adult life," he said.

[ENDS]

Recent ZAMBIA Reports

More than half children under five are stunted, 24/May/04
Traditional healers called in to treat HIV/AIDS, 19/May/04
New approach to HIV/AIDS treatment needed, 11/May/04
Pregnant adolescent refugees go back to school, 22/Apr/04
Study shows urgent need for information campaigns, 15/Mar/04

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