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On The Issues Magazine - Fall 2008
Zambia: Curbing Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

by Nada Ali


The news of the opening of a hospital-based crisis center in Kabwe, Zambia, to address the complex needs of women survivors of sexual and gender-based violence was music to my ears; given that in 2007 I listened to heart-wrenching accounts by Zambian women, including women living with HIV. Gender-based violence devastated the lives of many of those women.

One woman I interviewed in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, whom I will call Mercy, told me:

“I got married in 2004 and my husband started giving me STDs [sexually transmitted diseases]….He goes out with women. When I ask for a condom, or go to the clinic to get treatment, he starts beating me. In January 2006 I went for VCT [voluntary counseling and testing for HIV]…The results came positive. From the time I got the results, he started beating me up. ..He beat me everywhere. When I was four months pregnant he beat me until the placenta came out.”

As Mercy’s story shows, sexual violence is one factor driving the devastating HIV epidemic in Zambia, which has one of the highest rates in the world. United Nations statistics show that 15.2 percent of Zambia’s adults are living with HIV, and that about 60 percent of those infected are women. Research by Human Rights Watch has shown that violence against women by intimate partners and the lack of secure property rights impede women’s access to HIV information and testing, and interfere with their ability to start or continue using available HIV treatment.

With the opening of the coordinated response center, women like Mercy (at least in Kabwe), will have a place to go to get the medical and psychological help and legal support they need. They will also be able to report the abuse to the Victim Support Unit of the Zambia police – all in one place. This is good news indeed. However, the government needs to do much more.

The government and its partners established the first coordinated response center in Lusaka in 2006. Led by Care Zambia, the center is not based in a hospital like the new center in Kabwe, but works closely with the University Teaching Hospital in Lusaka. This year, Care Zambia formed a partnership with the government and a number of nongovernmental organizations to establish similar coordinated response centers in health facilities in six districts (including Kabwe), with funding from the United States government’s Women, Justice and Empowerment Initiative and from the European Union. Care Zambia is now negotiating a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Health on how these centers will operate and is working to renovate and equip the centers.

Zambia’s government has also made some other progress in addressing sexual and gender-based violence. It established the Victim Support Unit, a special unit of the police charged with addressing a variety of abuses, including domestic violence. Unfortunately the lack of human and other resources undermines this unit’s ability to tackle gender-based abuses.

But Zambia does not have a comprehensive law on sexual violence or a provision for marital rape or psychological abuse in its penal code.

The Ministry of Justice and the Zambia Law Development Commission have been working on a draft bill addressing sexual and gender-based violence, in consultation with nongovernmental organizations, but the process has taken almost two years so far. Although government officials have said the bill will be debated in Parliament in January 2009, it is unclear whether this will happen. Moreover, the most recent draft of the bill still does not criminalize marital rape.

The Zambian government should back up the important progress it has made on providing support services to victims by adopting this long-overdue legislation, the Sexual Offences and Gender Violence Bill, and should ensure that it does include provisions that criminalize marital rape. And then the government should enforce the legislation effectively across Zambia. While we wait, many Zambian women will continue to suffer from brutal abuse, and HIV will continue to wreck the lives of many Zambians.

December 16, 2008

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Dr. Nada Ali is Africa Researcher at the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. She can be reached at alin@hrw.org.

Also see Terror in Our Homes: Violence Against Women in Zimbabwe by Tawanda Mudzonga in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See What is a Woman Worth? The Global Storyis the Feminization of a Pandemic” by Marcy Bloom in “HIV-AIDS and Misogyny” by On The Issues Magazine, Spring 2008.


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