The Feminist Landscape in Zambia: Changes, Continuities, and Challenges

A young Zambian student marches with a modified version of the popular “Fuck the Patriarchy” slogan on her back/Credit: Rhiannon Matthias
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Over a year ago, an unprecedented protest set off along one of Lusaka’s main thoroughfares. Under the unforgiving sun, a young crowd marched forwards as chants of “no means no!” and “my body, my choice!” ricocheted off the hot concrete. The “March Against Sexual Violence”  was the brainchild of local self-identifying feminist NGO, the Sistah Sistah Foundation. Sistah Sistah was founded in 2018 by Lusaka natives Ann Kay Holland and Gladys Mwangala Monde to uphold and protect the rights of women, girls, and queer people.

Holland’s journey through intersectional feminism was inspired by “We Should all be Feminists”, the monologue at the end of the Beyoncé song Flawless, and a documentary on Malala Yousafzai. She explains:

“I felt like if she can do all that with a gun to her head, why can’t I do that in my own country. But that was when I  began to realize the extent of the issues we face here, how normalised and deeply engrained misogyny is.”

The 2021 protest was a groundbreaking articulation of feminist concerns, and a further indication of Zambia’s rebirth.

The power of Zambian youth

Weeks earlier the collective strength of the Zambian youth received international recognition for the role that it played in the electoral triumph of veteran opposition candidate Hakainde Hichilema. In turn, Hichlema’s victory ushered in new wave of optimism about the effectiveness of collective action. Criticisms of sexual violence and misogyny, both long-term societal ills, were voiced with new and unmistakably clear emphasis. However,  in a conservative and heteronormative society, feminist values are easily discredited by accusations they are “Western” in nature, or by linking them to other “taboo” issues such as non-heterosexuality.

The role of NGOs

So what role have grassroots Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) played in this area and how has political change impacted their work? A number of such organization engage in this kind of work and claim to promote gender equality. Whilst larger organizations have the resources and cache to make a tangible and more wide-reaching impact on the lives of women and girls, their work has been criticised by some (postcolonial) scholars. According to Holland: 

“International organisations do bandaid work, if you travel to the fringes of society and ask victims of sexual and gender based violence who is helping them, it’s not the United Nations. It’s these small grassroots organisations and groups doing the work with the limited resources we have”.

Holland also argues that the best way that large INGOs can play a part in supporting Zambian women is by assisting smaller NGOs with securing access to loans and grants. This is because grassroots organisations offer a long-term commitment by local people to uplift women and girls, one that is underpinned by an understanding and appreciation of Zambian culture and identity. They speak the same language(s) literally and spiritually, and therefore they are better placed to holistically address the issues facing women and girls. For this reason, smaller organizations with a local and national focus that are created by local women for local women may be able to have greater impact.

The growing emphasis on this kind of approach represents an emerging localisation of feminist ideology – a promising new development. However, grassroots organisations encounter serious structural barriers, the most compromising being an acute lack of funding. This is an area in which bureaucratic, educational, and even linguistic barriers sometimes obfuscate the potential for small NGOs. As Ann puts it:

“There is a lot of prejudice when it comes to even making the necessary connections to be able to receive funding. Sometimes you need to show evidence of past successful applications, but when you are just starting out you can’t do that. You need to be registered, but because of how slow the systems in place are here and the levels of corruption that can take a very long time and it can be very expensive. If you do not operate in English or have a good level of English you can’t do some applications. So for a lot of grassroots organisations external funding is almost impossible to receive.”

Ann and Gladys initially used their own savings to keep Sistah Sistah afloat, and criticise the lack of financial and logistical support from larger INGOs. Since the March Against Sexual Violence, Sistah Sistah has held other protests, workshops and events, and its co-founder Ann Kay Holland has been featured on local television as a panelist, fusing feminist discourse with mainstream viewing.

Communicating far and wide

Social media represents an invaluable space for local NGOs, and has been the arena for important discussions and debates. Zambian virtual spaces have been sporadically occupied with calls for justice for victims of sexual and other forms of intimate partner violence. It is unclear how far-reaching these calls reach  beyond  the urban middle-class, particularly for rural women and the urban poor. Women from some backgrounds may align themselves with variations of web 2.0 feminist thought and praxis, meanwhile others remain insulated from overt forms of feminist ideology.

For those identifying with the former, who enjoy constant access to social media and are connected into national and international networks, issues of intersectionality, income inequality, and sex positivity may resonate strongly. On the other end of the spectrum, many women and girls face forced marriage, period poverty, lack of access to education, and economic activity, and may be less aware that these situations are not inevitable but rather the product of unequal political and economic systems. It is therefore important to keep in mind that the wide array of feminist concerns are understood along class and regional lines, and therefore require multiple, simultaneous streams of feminist discourse and action.

At present, smaller organisations lack the funding to be the vehicles for the changes they wish to see, especially when they operate in an inhospitable environment. Ann reflects that:

“The previous government did not care about gender equality, there was not enough funding but the Ministry of Gender was made up of people that wanted to do the work. The new government actively tries to undermine our work. It is harder to get permits to protest now, before it was like we were being held against a wall by the neck with a loose grip, now that grip is continuously tightening.”

Ann’s statement is supported by Hichilema’s haste in abolishing the Ministry of Gender, and the scarcity of women in his cabinet: to the disappointment of many activists, he only appointed five women, half the figure in Lungu’s government. The new regime is also failing on structural issues such as vertical and gendered inequality, which is critical because many of the issues facing women are equity issues that are directly and positively correlated with poverty (see for example).

Size matters

This is another area in which size matters. Small organisations may not be able to do enough in terms of of poverty alleviation, or at least not without being part of a larger initiative. So again, we see the value of developing stronger ties between the domestic and international levels, in which multinational NGOs support local ones to pursue their own agendas.

This may be a better solution that local NGOs attempting to become multinational behemoths, because, as we have seen, being smaller and domestically rooted has a number of advantages. Indeed, the lower profile of these organisations may allow such collectives to be more intersectional and align themselves with a range of marginalised groups in a more effective way. As Ann puts it:

“We do not have to choose between our culture or being Zambian and supporting all women and girls. This means that regardless of how you identify or who you love, we will protect you because if we allow one person to be deprived of their human rights then where will it end?”. 

In conclusion, it is clear that Zambian society is not a conducive environment for the growth and development of feminist activism, but this does not mean that it cannot be succesful. Feminists and womanists the world over have triumphed in similar contexts. The quintessential metaphor for women’s ability to overcome such adversity is encapsulated in Sylvia Plath’s Mushrooms (1960). Plath parallels a mushroom’s growth, determination, and population expansion with women’s fight for notability, independence, and as she sees it, inevitable control of the majority.

Zambia’s feminists may not have the same opportunities as their counterparts in more democratic parts of the world to protest and get their message across, but that does not mean they are doomed to fail. As Sistah Sistah has shown, once opportunities present themselves there is swift mobilisation and clear enthusiasm for pushing progressive change. Following recent seismic events, it is likely that the spirit of young Zambians that led to far-reaching political changes will seep into the gender landscape – and as additional spaces emerge that are safer and less prone to state interference, the campaign for gender equality will only grow stronger.

Rhiannon Matthias is a political science and international relations graduate with a passion for critical cultural studies and postcolonial feminism. She currently lives between The Hague and her hometown, Lusaka. Her body of work centres on critically engaging with cultural, societal, and political norms in order to break with harmful practices and stereotypes.

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