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The impact [of the AIDS epidemic] is devastating, and there hasn't been much progress in identifying those affected, especially girls, or getting assistance from the government.

-Judge Lombe Chibesakunda, chair of the National Human Rights Commission, Lusaka, May 30, 2002

The Zambian government has not backed up its rhetoric on protection of the rights of girls. While frequently acknowledging the particular vulnerabilities of girls in Zambia, especially regarding risk of HIV/AIDS, the government has not taken adequate steps to implement a policy to protect them.

On paper, the Zambian government has been forthright in its assessment of the situation and professed a commitment to safeguarding basic rights. On HIV/AIDS, the National AIDS Council described the populations vulnerable to HIV infection as children, youth, women and certain mobile populations. It further acknowledged that young girls are particularly vulnerable to HIV due to practices including incest and coerced sex and that they have little legal recourse.191

The government acknowledges widespread gender bias in the country. The National Gender Policy, published in March 2000, states that the government is fully committed to gender equality. It recognizes the problem of gender violence, and the particular problems of incest and defilement of girls. Although the government notes that legal provisions in the penal code are designed to protect women from abuse, it concedes that "enforcement has not been vigorous enough to protect women and girl-children from violence, sexual harassment and abuse, as well as property grabbing which are still common."192

On children's rights, the government claims to have instituted national policies to improve the welfare and quality of life for Zambian children, to support activities to combat discriminatory practices arising from gender bias, and to eliminate violence against women and children.193 Since child protection is considered to be a cross-cutting issue, several government ministries have child protection components. Nevertheless, the government also acknowledges that mechanisms to protect children are weak, and that HIV/AIDS presents particular challenges for vulnerable children.194 None of the ministries have designed programs to combat sexual abuse against girls.

National HIV Policy and National AIDS Council

Since the mid-1980s, the Zambian government has supported a range of programs to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. According to the government, these programs began with a focus on AIDS education and blood screening, and later expanded to include counseling, STD/Clinical Care, epidemiology and research, home-based care, information/education campaigns, and condom promotion. In subsequent years, it also sought to involve NGOs, churches, and the private sector.195 The government concedes, however, that the initial responses to HIV/AIDS were "inadequate to contain a problem that was more than just medical in nature."196

Although a number of observers expressed cautious optimism about President Mwanawasa's commitment to combating HIV/AIDS and respecting human rights, many said this critical component of political commitment and leadership by the government has been sorely lacking. Under the presidency of Frederick Chiluba (1991-2001), the government resisted implementing effective HIV/AIDS programs and vigorous public awareness campaigns. As Stella Goings, the UNICEF representative in Zambia, put it:

For ten years, Zambia had a head of state who was himself an obstacle. He thought AIDS was God's punishment. . . . No AIDS awareness messages were allowed. When groups tried to put out public messages, Chiluba called them personally and said that they were corrupting the morals of Zambia's youth.197

An example of Zambian government interference with AIDS messages targeted at girls was inadvertently raised at a USAID press conference at the International AIDS meeting in Barcelona in July 2002. Holo Hachonda, the youth communications coordinator for the Youth Action Organization in Lusaka, was featured at the press conference to describe the youth leadership and participation in designing and implementing USAID's HEART (Helping Each Other Act Responsibly Together) campaign in Zambia. (HEART uses mass media to inform young people about HIV/AIDS, including messages on sexual abstinence.) But in what Hachonda described as "a hiccup," a televised public information message they designed to show girls talking about negotiating condom use in their relationships was pulled in December 2000 after two weeks on the air. When queried by a journalist about what had happened, Hachanda explained:

Because young women are not necessarily seen as people, as people who are-I think society, our society, has not yet prepared itself for young women talking openly about sex. And the message was, if my boyfriend says he wants to have sex with me, I say `no condom, no sex.'. . . What happened is that, at the time, one of the political leaders mentioned unofficially that he did not believe in condoms. The media took that speech and blew it up. And after two weeks of seeing the media debate about whether or not it was right for us to be advertising messages on condom use among young people. The campaign itself did suffer, in the sense that even messages on abstinence were banned. It has taken us twenty months, roughly, to get back on the air.198

He continued by describing his group's lengthy negotiations with representatives of the government and religious organizations to make the campaign acceptable to them.

First Lady Maureen Mwanawasa also participated in the press conference and added her perspective on how the ad being pulled reflected broader bias against girls:

[W]e did have an ad that was talking about condom use by boys, and it didn't create any problems. Everybody seems to have accepted this. But because it was now girls who were talking about using condoms, I think it's that denial, it's not accepting the fact that, where girls do get to a point where they can negotiate safer sex. . . . [W]e think that older men who are, in fact, having sex with younger women would not like to see an empowered younger woman.

Despite its rhetoric about respecting human rights of all persons and establishing vulnerable group and geographic priorities, the government has not addressed the vulnerabilities of girls related to sexual violence. In fact, two government reports-a 1999 report by the Ministry of Health and the Central Board of Health and the October 2000 Strategic Framework for the National AIDS Council-listed priority groups, but did not include the high-prevalence group of fifteen- to nineteen-year-old girls as a distinct category. The Ministry of Health/Central Board of Health report did not mention the problems of sexual violence when describing the human rights aspects of their policy, focusing on issues of stigma, testing and confidentiality, employment, and information. These issues are extremely important, but the list of human rights problems associated with the epidemic is incomplete without a focus on gender-related violence. The report placed advocacy for vulnerable groups, including young women and orphaned children subject to sexual exploitation and abuse, under the category of what NGOs should do rather than what the government itself should do.199

Gordon Bolla, the director of the National AIDS Council (NAC), told Human Rights Watch that now the government intends to focus more on women and children:

We'll try to put more emphasis on how to protect those who can't protect themselves; there's a bias to protect children and women. But we have to see how to protect children. If we don't protect them, we'll lose the next generation. So let's protect the girl, which will protect the family, which will protect the clan.200

The NAC is not a funding organization but will receive proposals for support from all over the country. Bolla said that most of the proposals are coming from Lusaka, and many are from women's groups, with some programs focusing on persons in the fifteen- to twenty-four-year range. The current thinking at the National AIDS Council seems to be toward focusing on youth overall, without any particular priority to girls.

The government has created a new institution-the National AIDS Council, guided by a committee of cabinet ministers-to coordinate the actions of the various actors in government and civil society to combat the epidemic. At this writing, a proposed bill on national AIDS policy has been sent to the cabinet and will be debated by Parliament shortly. At the moment, however, there is no legislation dealing specifically with HIV/AIDS. The bill is expected to contain provisions for care and support of orphans and vulnerable children, but is not expected to include a focused program on sexual violence against girls. Bolla also noted the necessity of changes in the legal system: "The laws haven't been changed to fit this situation. We need to do a lot. HIV/AIDS is bringing a lot of things to the fore."201

Victim Support Unit (VSU) of the Police Force

The main government mechanism tasked with providing legal protection for girls subjected to sexual violence and abuse is the Victim Support Unit of the police department. The idea for a VSU dates to 1994 with a police reform program initiated by women's NGOs. The VSU began its work in 1997 and now has officers at virtually every police station in the country. The unit is tasked with handling cases of physical or sexual abuse, including child abuse, violence against women, property grabbing, and victimization of the elderly. Although the VSU has intervened effectively in some cases, the potential impact of the VSU has been undermined by a fundamental shortage of resources, equipment, and training. For example, the VSU has only two vehicles for the whole country, which they received from the Danish Embassy in 2000, although the unit is tying to secure transportation for all provinces.202 There are currently 100 women officers in the VSU, and one woman officer is supposed to be assigned to each police post. The VSU contends that this is difficult to fulfill because many women refuse to be assigned to police stations in remote areas.203

According to the VSU in Lusaka, ninety-seven cases were reported to them in 1997; 1,954 in 1998; 2,232 in 1999; 3,845 in 2000; and 7,815 in 2001. Increasingly, counselors, social workers, peer educators and others are telling girls to report cases of abuse to the VSU or are themselves reporting cases of abuse. The VSU staff has increased from twelve officers in 1996 to 230 in 2002, with sixty more expected by the end of the year.

Although this increase in the reporting of cases may reflect growing confidence in the VSU over and above the apparent increase in the prevalence of abuse cases described in Part V., the record of the VSU is still disappointing. It is possible that many more people would turn to the VSU were it not for a fundamental mistrust of the police by the population. Eugene Sibote, a spokesperson for the VSU, described the establishment of a school liaison unit within the VSU as a way "to target children and let them know about their rights and about the work of the police. Because they mistrust the police, they fail to seek police assistance."204 Others, such as Karen Doll Manda of the NGO Family Health International, put the realities more starkly: "The concept of the VSU is a step-but you need a whole overhaul of the police system before people will have faith in the VSU. People go there out of desperation."205 Girls often express fears that they will not be believed. In other cases the basic logistics-distance to the police station and medical clinics, and the cost of the police report-dissuaded people from reporting.

Moreover, when faced with a complaint, the VSU all too frequently fails to respond or is ineffective. Juliet Chilengi, who directs the New Horizons orphanage for girls, lamented this lack of follow through:

The laws are there, but no one enforces them. Most cases of abuse here have gone through the VSU-but they don't follow up or do anything about it. I can't sit on the phone and remind them. If you don't take action, you're out of sight, out of mind. When there's a docket, I don't know who closes it.206

In one case reported to Human Rights Watch, a girl was allegedly raped by an army officer and her family reported the case to the VSU. Although the VSU expressed support for the family, they were unable or unwilling to deliver the summonses to the parties involved. Therefore, the girl's father had to track down each party and deliver a summons. When none of the parties appeared, the VSU did nothing.207 The case of Tina B., thirteen, who lived with her grandmother and then in an orphanage after the death of her parents, is another of the numerous cases reported to Human Rights Watch where the police failed to respond:

My grandmother couldn't look after me, so I worked as a maid for a [man]. . . . He beat me and threatened that he'd kill me before sunset. I told grandmother about the beatings, and she reported it to the police. They didn't do anything.208

Priscilla Chileshe of WLSA described the varying attitudes and underlying problems:

Some of the VSU work very well, some not. Some police feel threatened by the VSU-some senior officers feel threatened if, for example, they are wife batterers themselves, or they are used to thinking in a certain way. Some of them say the VSU is illegal. The VSU is also without adequate tools-they have no proper offices, they lack resources, equipment.209

VSU officials acknowledge the lack of sufficient training and resources. They need specialized training in investigating crimes of gender violence and child abuse and in dealing with the victims. They need basic legal training in child protection and human rights, as well as the Convention on the Rights of the Child. They need transportation, since the VSU is unlikely to respond to a case that is some distance away. They lack the equipment to conduct scientific tests on blood, hair, and semen. In one high-profile case in 1999 involving the rape and murder of three girls, blood and semen samples were taken to South Africa for testing, but only after women's groups accused the police of failing to investigate or to respond adequately. The level of attention brought to the case by the women's groups, which included a public protest in which thirty-nine women were arrested, pressured the police to conduct a more thorough investigation, and they finally arrested those believed to be responsible.210

The VSU is limited in its options to deal with abuses against girls. At the moment, it can remove a girl from her family or from the street, but there are few safe places to send her. The VSU lacks child-friendly resources that aim to address the needs of abused girls. As Alick Nyirenda of the Copperbelt Health Education Project (CHEP) put it: "The child goes through the regular police station; the environment is not appropriate."211

As already alluded to in the comments of Priscilla Chileshe, there are also problems of the VSU's standing within the police department itself. "Some police officers are in weak positions," explained Eugene Sibote. "They may be frustrated or intimidated locally."212 Sibote said he has told all VSU officers to report to him if they experience any interference by local authorities and offered to handle the case from Lusaka.

Some experts have judged the Zambian police to have a poor record overall on human rights. The U.S. State Department's human rights report on Zambia for 2001 noted the problem of corruption in the police force and described the police as follows:

Police officers reportedly committed several extrajudicial killings and frequently beat and otherwise abused criminal suspects and detainees. Police officers who commit such abuses often do so with impunity; however, some officers remained in detention pending trial. The lack of professionalism, investigatory skill, and discipline in the police force remained serious problems. Prison conditions were harsh and life threatening.213

When describing the VSU, the U.S. State Department report stated:

Although the police have a Victim Support Unit (VSU) to attend to the problems of domestic assault, wife beating, mistreatment of widows by the deceased husband's relatives, and "property grabbing," in practice police often are reluctant to pursue reports of domestic violence, preferring instead to encourage a reconciliation.214

When asked about the effectiveness of the police and the VSU, Peggy R., a former sex worker described to Human Rights Watch the problems sex workers have with the police and the limitations of the VSU:

What do the police do? They rape you. The VSU has no transportation, no phone-so how can you report to police? They really try, but they can't. If you don't have money, and transportation, the police can't investigate. They also won't help if you want to investigate a teacher or a policeman. But they might help if you want to investigate someone in the family.215

Given all these negative factors, it is still relatively rare that these cases are investigated or come before a court. The responsibility for failure to follow up in abuse cases does not exclusively reside with the VSU, however. Sometimes, the failure to follow up is due to corruption, where court officials as well as police may be paid off by perpetrators.216 In some cases the family may not want to press charges. Judge Lombe Chibesakunda, who chairs the government's National Human Rights Commission, observed, "The chances of coming to court are almost nil; it's an embarrassment to the family, to the girl. They try to hide it under the carpet."217

According to Elizabeth Mataka of Family Health Trust:

With domestic violence, women are often seen as possessions of the man so they have no recourse to laws against battering. Now we tell women to get a medical report, and the VSU will prosecute the batterer. The problem is that the women withdraw the cases, because her family doesn't recognize her rights. It's the social and economic dimension. What will you eat if breadwinner in jail? What's more, we need to lobby against the financial requirement for the police report.218

Moreover, in some instances when a case of rape or defilement is dismissed by a lower court, the verdict is overturned on appeal, with the VSU playing a proactive role in this outcome. Eugene Sibote, a spokesperson for the VSU, described such a case in Semanza in Western Province, involving a five-year-old girl who was raped by a thirty-one-year-old man. The case file included medical records indicating that the girl had vaginal warts, and that she had identified the perpetrator. The case was dismissed, and the man was released in October 2000. The girl's mother wrote to the VSU in Lusaka explaining the case and asking for assistance. The VSU decided to take the case and appeal it, and the man was sentenced to seven years of imprisonment in 2001.219

191 National AIDS Council, p. 9.

192 Republic of Zambia, "National Gender Policy," (Lusaka: March 2000), p. 42.

193 CRC report, p. 1.

194 CRC report, pp. 12-13 and 108.

195 HIV/AIDS in Zambia, pp. 61-62.

196 National AIDS Council, p. 15.

197 Human Rights Watch interview with Stella Goings, UNICEF, May 31, 2002.

198 USAID Press Conference: "ABCs of Preventing HIV and AIDS Among Youth," July 11, 2002.

199 HIV/AIDS in Zambia, p. 67, and Strategic Framework, p. 40.

200 Human Rights Watch interview with Bolla, May 30, 2002.

201 Ibid.

202 Human Rights Watch interview with Eugene Sibote, May 22, 2002.

203 Human Rights Watch interview with Jayne Kunda Mwila, Kalingalinga Health Centre, May 30, 2002.

204 Human Rights Watch interview with Eugene Sibote, May 22, 2002.

205 Human Rights Watch interview with Karen Doll Manda, May 21, 2002.

206 Human Rights Watch interview at New Horizons orphanage, Lusaka, June 1, 2002.

207 Human Rights Watch interview at YWCA, May 22, 2002.

208 Human Rights Watch interview at Jesus Cares Ministries, Lusaka, May 24, 2002.

209 Human Rights Watch interview, May 29, 2002.

210 Human Rights Watch interview, May 31, 2002.

211 Human Rights Watch interview, May 25, 2002.

212 Human Rights Watch interview, May 22, 2002.

213 U.S. Department of State, "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2001," available at (retrieved July 10, 2002).

214 Ibid.

215 Human Rights Watch interview in Lusaka, Zambia, May 20, 2002.

216 Human Rights Watch interview with Sibote, May 22, 2002.

217 Human Rights Watch interview with Judge Lombe Chibesakunda, chair of National Human Rights Commission, Lusaka, Zambia, May 30, 2002.

218 Human Rights Watch interview, May 20, 2002.

219 Human Rights Watch interview with Sibote, May 22, 2002.

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