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Learn to walk while you can – GBV survivor

JACK ZIMBA, Lusaka
CHIPASHA Iliamupu takes a deep breath and fans her face with her hand before she starts to narrate her story. It is a story she has definitely recounted a number of times before, but she still has to gather her inner strength to relive it.
There is a deep sense of sadness in her voice, but she manages to mask it with her amiable face and a warm smile.
The 23-year-old third-year linguistic student at the University of Zambia considers herself a survivor after enduring almost two-and-half years in an abusive marriage she describes as “modern-day slavery”. After breaking out of her abusive marriage eight years ago, Chipasha now wants to use her story to help other women to learn to walk before it is too late.
Chipasha’s story began when she came of age at 14, in her village in Kaoma district, Western Province.
She, like many other girls in her village, was taken to a sikenge to be initiated into womanhood.
In the Lozi tradition, a sikenge is an initiation school for any girl who comes of age, which is usually when they start their menses.
At age 15, Chipasha’s father married her off to a soldier who was 20 years her senior. He paid K300 as bride price for the young virgin.
MODERN-DAY SLAVERY
Chipasha says her father was too poor to support his family of nine children, hence the decision to marry her off.
“I come from a very deprived background. My father and mother had never been in formal employment,” she says, her voice almost breaking as she remembers the start of her path into hell.
And so Chipasha was forced out of school and became a wife and a step-mother to the three children her new husband had fathered with three different women. The oldest of the children was only two years younger than Chipasha.
The young wife soon realised that her marriage was very different from what she was taught at the sikenge.
Chipasha says the abuse from her husband started almost immediately she moved in, and took various forms, but most traumatising was of sexual nature.
“Every time he had sex with me, right from the beginning, he never prepared me for it, he just forced himself on me, which was a very painful experience, contrary to what I was taught that sex was supposed to be an act of love that was enjoyed,” she says.
Before she could celebrate her sixteenth birthday, Chipasha had become a mother to a baby girl, but her frail condition did nothing to stop the insults, blows or assault.
“Sometimes you would find that he beats me and I’m swollen, but he still wants to have sex with me and in a very rough manner,” she says.
Chipasha believes she would have either died from her injuries or even been killed had she stayed longer in her marriage.
“I was almost ending up being killed. If I never opened my eyes, or if YWCA (Young Women Christian Association) did not come to my rescue by empowering me with the knowledge that I needed, I would have been ‘late’ by now because it was getting out of hand,” she says.
Like many women in abusive relationships, Chipasha felt some affection towards her husband and hoped that he would stop hurting her. But the abuse only grew worse.
“The worst thing that he ever did was stripping me naked and beating me up while all my neighbours were watching,” she says.
Although she was insulted, belittled, slapped, punched and kicked, she says it is the sexual abuse that has had a lasting impact on her.
“The sexual abuse is still engraved in me, because it hurt me deep inside my flesh and my mind,” she says.
But whatever she went through, Chipasha says: “I didn’t know how terrible it was until I had moved out.”
She thinks her husband’s abusive nature stemmed from his own background – his own father was a polygamist who abused his wives.
But he may also have taken advantage of Chipasha’s vulnerable background as he often boasted: “I can kill you and pay your father”.
Although Chipasha’s father later came to learn about the constant abuse, he could not allow her daughter to seek divorce as he couldn’t afford to pay back the bride price, as required by traditional law.
Her father died while she was still in the early years of her marriage but Chipasha says she never hated him for marrying her off so young.
She thinks he was merely following a tradition passed down from previous generations and believes that some of the time-honoured traditions have led to continued and rising GBV cases.
While she is not against some cultural practices she does have reservations about girls’ initiation ceremonies.
Stating that initiation practices, which teach girls as young as 12 how to please a man sexually, and to submit to their husbands unconditionally, leads to women being vulnerable to abuse.
She blames her silent suffering on the lesson she received at the sikenge.
“When I was secluded [for initiation], I was taught to keep everything that happens in my matrimonial home to myself and that I must not share problems, so it took me time to come out and share what I was going through,” she says.
She says there was a lot of emphasis on secrecy in the marriage during her initiation.
Chipasha also suggests the lessons that teach a woman how to please a man in bed should only be given when girls are mature and about to get married.
She wants the lessons in the sikenge to just focus on hygiene when girls are having their menses.
“I will never take my girl to a sikenge, that I have vowed. If it means fighting, I will fight it with the last drop of my blood,” she says.
BACK TO SCHOOL
Chipasha’s husband escalated the instances of abuse when she requested to be taken back to school.
But determined to continue her education, Chipasha sold drinking water to pupils in order to raise money to pay for her grade nine examination fees, and bought book so she could study at home.
She passed her exams, and when she went to another school, she found help with the YWCA, and she gathered more courage to leave her husband.
“One day I decided I was going to walk out no matter what,” she says.
Some people, however, tried to persuade Chipasha to stay, but she had been through too much.
“I thought I had seen all the pages of his book and it was up to me to stick with him and die or to leave and lead a better life without him,” she says.
“Outsiders only knew his public life, but I moved in his private life,” she says.
She knew it would be difficult to gain public support for her decision but her decision paid off.
Today, Chipasha is less trusting of men and almost vows never to get married again.
“Anytime I think of being in a relationship, all that comes to mind is what I went through,” she says.
She thinks women in abusive relationships should break the silence and take action to protect themselves and future generations.
YWCA programmes manager Mirriam Mwiinga, says: “When the situation is bad, walk out.”
Ms Mwiinga says many women her organisation deals with are afraid of walking out of abusive marriages for economic reasons, while other fear losing their status.
“We have also noticed over years that some people get used to GBV,” she says.
The YWCA runs seven temporal protective shelters around the country, helping abused women, sometimes with economic empowerment.
Zambia has in the past year recorded a slight increase in cases of gender-based violence, according to recent data by the Zambia Police Service, with a worrying trend of spousal killings.
According to statistics released by police last week, 18,540 cases of gender violence were recorded last year, compared to 18,088 in 2015.
The statistics also show that the country recorded 77 murders related to gender-based violence. Of these, 36 murder victims were male, while 30 were female, seven were girls, plus four boys.

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