Some cultural practices are progressive. Others are harmful to women and girls and they perpetuate abuse. These practices relegate women to inferior positions with respect to property, inheritance, marriage and decision making. In most cases, culture is used as an excuse to continue various forms of abuse that promote sexual, physical and psychological harm.
In order to address these harmful cultural practices, the YWCA of Zambia has created safe spaces in schools and communities. Young women gather in these safe spaces to discuss issues that affect them, such as human rights, and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), and develop life skills to make informed choices. Safe spaces also provide referral points to access other services offered by the YWCA, such as counselling, legal advice, support through court processes and temporary shelter. In Kaoma, this project is being supported by the World YWCA Power to Change Fund. It is increasing awareness on issues of SRHR among young people, especially young women, with skills to address disparities in society that make them vulnerable. The project is becoming stronger by the day, as more young women add their voices to demand the ban on negative cultural practices.
Under customary law, early marriages are permitted, and they predispose young girls to marry soon after reaching puberty. In November 2010, for example, a 15 year old girl returned to her village near Lusaka after completing seventh grade, only to find that a wedding ceremony had been organised and that she was the bride! Last year, 90 cases of early marriages were reported to the YWCA. Other cultural practices, such as wife inheritance and sexual cleansing, in which a newly widowed woman must have sex with one of her husband's male relatives in order to "exorcise" his spirit, are not only abominable, but they also increase the risk of contracting HIV and deprive women and girls of their SRHR. Women are also referred to traditional counsellors to be disciplined at the request of their husbands, where they are subjected to physical and psychological abuse.
Intensified advocacy, lobbying and awareness raising has yielded positive results to help curb these practices. The amendment of the Penal Code in 2005 now criminalises harmful cultural practices. Some traditional leaders are speaking against these negative practices and have taken steps to discourage them. For example, Chief Mpezeni from the Eastern Province has abolished sexual cleansing, and Chief Liteta (Central Province) has banned early marriages. Unfortunately, others continue to condone these practices.
Violence against women, particularly against wives, remains a huge problem in Zambia. Women continue to suffer in silence as they are taught that it is culturally inappropriate to divulge matrimonial issues. The YWCA of Zambia receives approximately 30 cases of wife battery a month, but this is just a fragment of the actual violence taking place in homes. The culture of silence also hides other forms of abuse which are rampant and in most cases go unreported.
The YWCA of Zambia conducts awareness raising to sensitise women to ‘break the silence’ and to report all cases of violence, regardless of where they occur. The YWCA also advocates for the removal of the infamous Article 23(4) of the Zambian Constitution which permits customary law to discriminate against women.
The Power to Change Fund project in Zambia demonstrates the importance of sexual, reproductive and health information as a right. It shows how ignorance on these matters can affect the whole community, but also how easy it is to demand change if women and young women are supported to know and be able to claim their rights. Thanks to this project young people, especially young women in Zambia, are more empowered to make informed and safe choices.