Tag Archives: birth control

Feminism in Zambia: Finding an Unexpected Champion

Our last guest post this month is by Stephanie Reinhardt. Stephanie is a Program Officer with Jhpiego and is currently working to support HIV/AIDS and maternal health programs in east and southern Africa. Growing up in San Francisco and joining forces with Larkin Callaghan at the age of 4 has left her overly opinionated and easily distracted by all the exciting things around her. Hey look – a baboon just walked by my office window! When she’s not bouncing around the globe, she’s very busy procrastinating.

Gabriel, a Zambian taxi driver who works outside an overpriced hotel in the capital Lusaka, drove me to a township on the outside of town last week. We started with the usual conversation.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“California,” I responded, “though I’m starting to feel like Zambia is my second home”.

I’ve been to Zambia six times in the past four years supporting public health programs run through Jhpiego, an affiliate of Johns Hopkins. After some discussion about various locations in the US he had learned about from other passengers, he jumped into his favorite story about American history to see if I knew it as well.

After slowing his taxi to traverse a particularly rough patch of potholes, Gabriel looks at me and said, “Well, you know about the Gremich sisters?” (Upon further research, I learned the correct spelling of Grimké sisters). I shook my head no, which gave Gabriel the green light to dive into his story:

“During the time of slavery in America (perhaps in California, or Texas or wherever), there were two sisters who wanted to put an end to slavery.”

I jumped in to briefly describe (with my best recollections from high school) the divisions between the north and the south that eventually led to the civil war, which I explained, for future reference was on the east coast of America, so I would guess that the Grimké sisters were probably from a state like New York. (Turns out they were from South Carolina, but later joined abolitionist circles in Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey.)

Gabriel gave me a polite nod, but the civil war was clearly not his target conversation. With the eagerness of a school kid sitting in the front row, he continued his story, which he credited to a book he had read called, No Fear of Trying. Gabriel’s eyes grew large as he told the story of these sisters’ amazing bravery to publicly speak out against slavery. He looked at me and repeatedly tapped the top of the steering wheel with his palm to emphasize the profundity of this story. “These were the first women to speak at a podium…to men. Women did not do that at that time.” He described the message of equality and freedom that they took all the way to the US government. “People thought that women should not give public speeches to men. Lots of people threatened them and told them to stop, but these women were so brave, ” he continued. I was nodding in agreement, but apparently not giving the reaction he wanted.  “Isn’t that amazing?” he exclaimed. “It’s great!” I responded.

Despite a few factual inaccuracies (that the Gimké sisters final speech ended slavey, and this all took place in the 1950s), Gabriel’s story is pretty spot on. The Grimké sisters grew up in South Carolina with all the advantages of a privileged class awaiting them.  Unlike many other northern born abolitionists, the Grimké sisters had seen slavery first hand and felt compelled to not only put an end to the practice, but to put an end to racial and gender discrimination – an idea radically progressive for their time. They promoted extremely advanced messages for both racial and gender equality. Angelina Grimké letters demanded “educational reform, equal wages and an end to other forms of discrimination against women.”

What fascinated me most about Gabriel’s story was not that I was previously unaware of this significant historical biography (I am never shocked by the amount of information I don’t know or frankly, don’t remember). Rather, I was completely taken aback by his emotional response to this story. He loved these women for their bravery to stand up to men and wanted to share it with anyone who got in his cab.

Zambia is not a country known for its progressive gender relations. Women unfortunately still live very much as the mercy of their husbands, cultural laws and the State. As explained in a 2002 OMCT report on violence against women in Zambia:

Women in Zambia currently face many obstacles to the realisation of their human rights including high rates of violence against women in the family, in the community and by the State, discrimination in the application of customary laws relating to family and inheritance rights, low levels of representation in political and other decision-making structures, a lack of access to education and employment opportunities, poor health care services and the limited availability of affordable contraception.

The 2007 Zambian Demographic Health Survey (DHS) included an assessment of women’s empowerment by asking questions on employment and decision-making.  While great variations exist with regard to education level and location, overall 37 percent of men think that decisions about how to spend the wife’s cash earnings (if she has employment outside of the home) should be made mainly by the husband.  These views extend to a woman’s body as well – 46 percent of men think that the husband alone should make the decision on the number of children to have.  Only 64.8 percent of currently married women responded that they are the primary decision makers or make joint decisions with their husbands regarding their own health care.

So, given this context, I was baffled. I wondered if I had stumbled into the cab of an outspoken Zambian male feminist. As Gabriel’s taxi approached our destination, I probed him on his thoughts on women’s rights in Zambia. “Oh,” he responded, “we have learned a lot from Americans. Everyone is equal here.” Then he dropped the famous development buzz word “gender” and it was all over. “Yes, we have learned gender is important, so now we are all equal.” Ack.

I was hugely disappointed. My image of this Zambian male taxi driver in a superhero outfit championing women’s rights quickly vanished. I thanked him for the ride and started to get out of the car. As I was about to depart, he pulled out a small piece of paper and said, “You work in health? Can I ask you a question?” I nodded, and he continued: “My wife has decided that we should only have three kids, and so we want to stop now that we have three. Can you look at this list and tell me what you would recommend?” On the piece of paper was a list of family planning methods that they had received from their local clinic. I sat with him and explained the differences between some of the short term methods and the long term methods. I also described the vasectomy process should he be interested in the procedure. I explained that if his wife wants no more kids, a long term method, such as an IUD might be best, as it offers protection for 5-7 years. He smiled and responded, “Great, thank you. I will tell my wife this information and see what she wants to do.”

Maybe we have our champion after all.

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Filed under Feminism, Health Education, International, Public Health