Zambian gender gap
Zambian gender gap

The Zambian gender gap: Between law and custom

The ambition to close the Zambian gender gap is undermined by social mores and the gaps in our competing legal systems, says Mtonga Dennis.

Men and women need to transform society in order to address inequalities, in power and privileges, between persons of different genders. So many scholars and independent thinkers have contributed to this great ambition. And, in Zambia a broad collection of laws enshrining gender equality, from the 2011 Act against Gender Based Violence (GBV) to the Gender Equity and Equality Rights Bill have been enacted. However a range of social and economic mores and the dual structure of statutory law and customary law could stifle these ambitions.

Under Zambia’s constitution (Article 23) statutory (national) law and customary (traditional/local) law are given equal primacy. This duality has given birth to dimensions of gender-based inequalities; in reproductive health, and economic activity that have continued to breed severe consequences on the quality of life that men and women enjoy in Zambia.

The dual structure of statutory law and customary law, has perpetuated gender inequality. Rights which are supposed to be protected under statutory law, are not necessarily observed and women endure unfair treatment in terms of child marriage,unequal distribution of property, and more under the customary law.

In 2015 for example, statistics from the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index showed that Zambia is ranked 116 out of the 145 countries and regionally, ranked third highest country for cases of child marriages; 42% of women aged 20-24 were married by the age of 18 years . In other words, Zambia was among the 30 worst countries with the highest levels of gender inequality in the world. All this despite Article 11 of the national constitution guaranteeing equal rights to men and women. 

Inequality is underpinned by cultural and economic mores, the common male breadwinners and female housewife stereotypes and patriarchal dominance appears to have emerged from religious and traditional principles and an economic climate that largely “enables” men to financially provide for their families. Compliance with customary laws around  premarital traditional initiation embeds gender status inequalities promoted and means women stand little chance of breaking through and think gender transformation is unattainable. This has caused women to have little bargaining power over their sexual reproductive health, economic and even political rights as they rely upon husbands for status and economic support. This also also embeds the belief that women don’t have  equal competencies in employment or politics.

There have been strides made including establishing an independent Ministry of Gender in 2015 as well as the development of the Gender Policy. These steps with many others, will harness the agenda of achieving the ambition and making sure Zambia is a gender transformed nation. But this ambition will not be achieved unless we can ensure that statutory laws are practiced at local level.


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The Zambian gender gap: Between law and custom

by Mtonga Dennis Reading time: 2 min