August 16, 2007

Published in Zambia Daily Mail

TODAY, the heads of state of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) meet in Lusaka to discuss – among other issues – a key weapon in the war on poverty and disease: women’s equality. My experience from interviewing dozens of low income women in Zambia earlier this year makes clear that poverty and health crises like HIV cannot be overcome unless and until state commitments to eradicate gender-based violence and to ensure equality between women and men in the SADC constitutions, are turned into action. The good news is that SADC has a draft roadmap to overcome sex inequality: the draft Gender and Development Protocol. The bad news is that for many of the SADC countries, the most fitting title for this map would be “the road less travelled.” Hopefully, this week’s summit will bring both clarity and much-needed action to safeguard womens’ rights. The draft Protocol is the result of a process that started in 2005, with the audit of SADC’s Declaration on Gender and Development and its addendum on Preventing and Eradicating Gender-Based Violence. It addresses a wide range of issues that affect women in the SADC region, including constitutional and legal rights, governance, education, productive resources, gender-based violence, health, HIV/AIDS, peace-building and conflict resolution and media. Among these important issues, two warrant special attention: the endemic levels of violence against women and its link to HIV/AIDS; and the pervasive lack of legal and constitutional rights for women in many SADC countries. As a binding document, the SADC Protocol lays out the necessary steps to address these complex issues. For example, it requires member states to enact and enforce legislation criminalising all forms of gender-based violence, including marital rape, by the year 2015. My research in Zambia confirms the importance of this as an initial step. Not only does violence against women contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS, it also prevents women living with HIV/AIDS from accessing and adhering to HIV treatment. Bertha K. (pseudonym), a woman living with HIV whom I interviewed in Lusaka in early February, told me that abuse by her husband at times forced her to skip her antiretroviral medicine. “I miss doses sometimes. I feel so bad that I don’t even feel like taking the medicine. I say to myself: “ let me die.” Yet there is no separate law in Zambia that criminalises violence against women, and the penal code, which is currently used in cases of domestic abuse, does not cover marital rape or psychological abuse. The Protocol also requires that SADC member states have constitutions that protect gender equality and ensure that customary laws adhere to the constitution by the year 2015. In fact, Zambia currently falls down on both of these counts, as its current constitution excludes areas such as marriage and divorce under customary law from equality protections. I have listened to scores of women in Zambia who told me that they were unable to escape abusive marriages for fear of plunging into poverty – all because they were married under customary law, which, among many ethnic groups, grant family property to men upon divorce. I believe that Zambia cannot afford to wait until 2015 to amend its constitution. Not only are the rights of these women to health and to life affected, but the very success of essential programmes such as those providing HIV treatment are at stake. Some of the women I spoke to, who had escaped abusive marriages, found themselves too poor to afford transportation costs to collect free HIV medicine from clinics. Certainly legal and constitutional reform would only be first steps to safeguard womens’ rights. Furthermore, Zambia has taken initial steps to tackle the tension between customary law and the constitution, and to address violence against women. For example, the draft constitution affirms equality before the law for men and women, and prohibits any law, culture, custom, or tradition that undermines the dignity and status of men and women. However, it is unclear when the constitutional review process will conclude and whether this amendment would be retained in the new constitution. In terms of violence against women, a Gender Violence and Sexual Offences bill has been drafted. The bill contains a number of loopholes, however, and there is no clear timeline for when it would be considered by the National Assembly. Meanwhile, many women continue to suffer domestic violence, and for some, this impedes life-saving HIV treatment. Professor Sheila Tlou, Minister of Health in Botswana, who received a prestigious award at the International Womens’ Summit in Nairobi last month in recognition of her work on AIDS, emphasised the need for the Protocol by saying: “While a declaration is a nice to do, a protocol is a have to do.” All those who “have to do” are gathered in Lusaka this week: the governments of the SADC countries. They not only need to adopt the protocol, they must take action to make it stick, such as promoting mechanisms for meeting the targets and ensuring continued participation in the process by civil society organisations. Only then can there be confidence that states will take the road less travelled. Dr Ali is Africa Researcher for the Women's Rights Division of the Human Rights Watch in New York.