Columnists Features

Veep with special mission for women

GENDER and Child Development Minister Nkandu Luo (right) congratulates Vice-President Inonge Wina after the latter’s address to Zambian residents in USA at the Zambian mission to the UN in New York on Tuesday. PICTURE: CHIBAULA SILWAMBA

PICTURES of the burnt woman as she was being assisted  to lie on a hospital  bed at one of the  nation’s hospital s sent shocks through the bodies of those who stared at their tv screens  to watch and listen to the 19:00 hours news a week or so ago.
You could almost feel the pain the woman’s burns were sending all over her body. And the news announced that it was her husband who had poured petrol on her in order to ‘teach’ her lessons in obedience. And the husband, who was said to be a pastor of a Pentecostal church, was shown on the screen. Many must have wished there was a way to strangle him.
The news said he had tried to drink poison after doing this to his wife. But God rejected his request for death. He is still alive and in the hands of the law.
The question is, what kind of person could do this to his own wife? How could anybody go to the extent of fetching petrol, pour it on another, in this case his own wife, and light a match? Later news said the poor woman has since died. How can a husband kill his own wife in this way?
The story belies a great tragedy that forms part of the fabric of the Zambian society. There is a huge problem in this country regarding the fate of women.  And there is clear need to find a solution to the problem.
It has been stated that you cannot think of solving a problem if you have not taken time to understand it. It might be too late for the woman, whose burns sent her to her death, but Zambia’s Vice-President, Inonge Wina, has great understanding of why the average Zambian woman has been subjected to the raw deal of life.
In that sense she gives hope to the millions of our women because she promises ways in which the Zambian woman can be rescued from her own country’s vicious cultural position regarding women.
Zambia faces many problems in almost every area of her sectors. Some are bigger than others. But one of the leading national challenges concerns women, the mothers of the nation. And they are many and complex.
Mrs Wina is soft-spoken. She is unassuming. And she is one of the humblest women you might have the chance to meet. When you walk into her home and sit down in the lounge with her, you forget that you are in the presence of political royalty. You forget that you are in the company of the second-most powerful person in the land.
But as you begin a conversation with her, you soon realise that you are in the presence  of an intellectual giant and a person who has deep understanding of the many challenges facing the nation.
Among these challenges is the problem of women. Her understanding of the Zambian woman, from the time she begins her life to womanhood, is deep and solutions she suggests are practical.
Inonge Wina is Vice-President of Zambia, not some lady chairperson of the women’s league. She is in this office for all Zambians, men and, women.  But she is a woman and speaking to me recently just before Zambia’s celebrations of the International Women’s Day, Mrs Wina turned her focus on the plight of women in Zambia. She chose to start by examining the root causes of the challenges.
Why are women’s problems in this country so many, so deep and so complex?
“I think we need to go back to the issue of our culture,” she states, adding: “Our culture is not really giving much space to the girl child to blossom to be herself.”
It is her conviction that in Zambia the girl-child, the person who is going to grow into a woman, is born and grows in a culture that considers her a subordinate person.
“Her socialisation is being based on the fact that she is a subordinate person who, from the time of birth, is to be subservient and submissive. As soon as this young girl is able to wash dishes or go to draw water, she is given house responsibilities to help the mother around the house while her brother is left scot-free to go and play football or to go and play around with other boys.”
In other words, the girl is not being given the opportunity to start exploring the world around her. That freedom is for the boy. The poor girl is confined to the house where she is expected to be learning the women’s life chores of housekeeping.
When it came to education, parents preferred to send their boy children to school rather than the girls. Things have changed slightly today because some value has been noted in educating girl-children.
Many schools, especially in rural areas, are far from the village where the two children would be coming from. The parents prepared some food for them to carry. Usually, it is the girl who will carry the food rather than the boy because it is her duty to do so.
At about 12, 13 or 14, physiological changes begin to take place in the girl which include the ramifications of puberty and early teen age. If there is no water in the school, these changes become extreme problems for the girl and further add to her feeling of inferiority.
During these periods the girl might need to stay away from school while the boy continues to attend school. This happens every month of the year and after 12 months, there are examinations to be sat and absenteeism has not added but rather subtracted much from the needs of the girl’s education.
“So this girl child begins to assume certain inferiority feelings that she was inferior to her brother to whom nothing extraordinary has happened,” Mrs Wina notes.
Despite these challenges, the girl might pass her grade 7 examinations. That means there will be two people needing school fees, uniforms and other necessities of school. Most parents even today would prefer to pay for the boy.
At the age of 13 or 14, the girl child is considered a product for sale.
“In any case the girl is considered to be a product of exchange. She might be exchanged for cattle of cash.”
The lobola negotiations that take place over her do not include her. She is never a part of what is going on. She is married off to some person who becomes her new overlord.
If she was fortunate enough to continue school, she will continue to face more difficult challenges than the boy-child including the risk of becoming pregnant. If that happened, it usually spelled the end of the education route for the girl as everything comes to a standstill.
Most Zambian women cannot assert themselves because the culture of the nation is designed to destroy assertiveness. Most women will not initiate ideas or contribute to them even in their  rural environment where this suppression of the girl’s human rights is more pronounced.
Government has realized that to bring all this to an end, new and strong policies must be put in place to address the situation.
Government has looked at three ways in which the situation can be changed:
1. Policy direction: every effort is being made to introduce policies that have been designed to rescue the Zambian girl child from this negative cultural influence on her life.
2. Education, sensitization: Under this program everything will be done to educate every Zambian girl to see herself as a young person with the same rights as her Zambian brother.  Deliberate policies such as reducing cut-off points to enable more girls get into secondary school have been introduced.
3. Provision of skills training:  to give life skills to the Zambian women so that they could use them to look after themselves in a country where survival is becoming more challenging every day.
“The cut-off points in the area of education is an affirmative action to help more young women to be accepted in colleges and universities,” Mrs Wina says.
Additionally, the University of Zambia has reserved a certain percentage of all the places would-be students applied for  specifically for deserving young women who might not have the financial ability to pay for their degree programmes.
“Again this is an affirmative action on the part of Government to have more girls in universities and colleges. And those who want to learn skills in such training institutions, conditions are in place to allow as many girls as possible to join their brothers in skills training.
Now, civil society groups like FAWEZA and others have joined Government in identifying vulnerable girls and orphans and bright girls that come from poor families to be given scholarships or bursaries or just any other assistance to help them complete their education.
The Vice-President is not satisfied with these efforts. She feels more needs to be done because of the increasing number of girls who graduate from school and who need to go further in their education and training every year.
“We have so much youth unemployment. Unfortunately  our programs in schools over the past many years have been directed mainly towards academic learning.  Skills training is missing. So our children are acquiring their certificates with civics and speaking a lot of good English but they cannot use their hands to go out there and make a living.
“So we have really to go back to the basics and Government has to take the lead in ensuring that Trade schools are built all over the country and this is the policy of this government ” says Mrs Wina.
She adds that Government is seriously contemplating opening up all National Service youth training centres throughout the country to train youth, boys and girls in various life skills.
Many of the National Service camps have not been in use for many years and have therefore deteriorated. They will need a lot of money to resuscitate. But the fact that such a project is in government plans should give both the young women and men hope.
“Something is being done. We are also encouraging teaching of sciences and engineering and the participation of the girl children in these subjects.
A conference of engineers in Livingstone at which she recently officiated assured her that they would start designing programmes that will include girl-children in an effort to popularize science and engineering.
The government has additional plans for many youths who missed out on education for one reason or another to give them skills and loans to enable them start their own businesses.
This program has already started under Citizens Economic Empowerment Commission after identifying some youths, both young men and women, and giving them loans to enable them run their businesses.
Mrs Wina also touched on the question of land ownership for women, pointing out that even in this area, Government has made some provisions to enable women acquire land.
It has been established that only those with money could afford to buy land. Most of these are men, since most women are not in a position to raise the kind of money needed to buy land, especially in urban areas like Lusaka. How are the women to be assisted to acquire land?
“Government saw the problem of land ownership for women, so it put a law that says that 30% of all statutory land should be reserved for women.”
She noted, however, that although the law is in place, the people that are supposed to enforce it are not doing their job. Because of this, Government has decided to revisit the whole programme to correct whatever was being  used to deny women the right to acquire land.
Some of the problems include ability to pay for title deeds for the land they may acquire. The cost of title deeds was prohibitive for most women.  For many more, it was sheer ignorance to know which land they were entitled to and how to go about trying to acquire it.
“Information is key to this process. How many women know which land is available and which municipality?
These are the constraints on the part of the women. Some of them do not know how to read and write.
“So the procedures and processes to acquire land for a woman are still a deterrent. So we need to simplify the processes. And I will push this matter and I will continue to push until it is made easier for women to acquire land,” she says.
In the rea of mortgage loans, Mrs Wina bemoaned the demand by building societies to demand payslips from women applicants requiring loans for land. Even self-employed women who have title deeds will not be entertained on the strength of the title deeds alone. They must also produce payslips.
“So the biases that are so entrenched in our society are the ones which make us start to take action. We see unfairness there. . .we see injustice,” she protests.
Mrs Wina notes that some of the reasons advanced by the lending institutions such as protecting the money they keep are valid. There have been cases where loans have been given to people to build houses but they have used the money to marry new wives instead.
Zambians, she notes, have a problem of refusing to abide by the law.
“There are people in Zambia who think they can get away with anything!” she observes. This has forced lending institutions to go by the book and refuse to think outside that box.
Mrs Wina believes that Zambia should have reached the level of Malaysia by now, a country with which they were at the same level in 1964.
On the question of gender violence against women, the Vice President is at a loss with words. Stiffer jail sentences have been imposed but they do not seem to reduce the violence.
“So we are beginning to wonder what more society can do to end the violence. What can the moral society, the churches, do to help? What can we do to teach our little boys to respect their little sisters so that they grow into people that will respect each other?”
She feels appalled by the fact that even church leaders are becoming violent against their loved ones.
The reasons for the increasing violence seem to be many and varied and include the frustration of growing unemployment in which the frustrated men take everything out on their wives, the breakdown of security due to the breakdown of the extended family, the dynamic nature of modern society, abuse of alcohol and drugs, the influence of television and radio.
Mrs Wina has cautioned against adopting Western cultures which most Zambians do not understand.
“The Americans whose culture we are adopting come from a long way. We are adopting a culture that has taken them 300 years to build in the short time we have associated with them. How does a child survive in all this?”
She observes that West Africans seem to treat their religions more seriously, that Zambia’s Christianity is peripheral, ending at singing and attending church without taking what was taught seriously.
In education, rules and laws that have been put in place to protect special groups such as vulnerable women are flouted and some civil servants and even ministers grab assistance and help meant for the poor and impoverished and give them to their children and relatives.
Monitoring has been weakened by one reason or another in many sectors of government. That is why, in the Ministry of Education, for instance, it has become necessary to bring back inspectors of schools  to do inspectorate duties and report to relevant wings of government.
Many initiatives to improve the position of the girl child, the young woman and the rest of the Zambian women in general are being put in place by Government. But most of them are not coordinated enough to make an impact. And those who are involved in them sometimes abuse their positions by taking care of their interests first before the nation’s interests.
“You have to be on the toes of civil servants to make them work. Many of them are busy supervising building work on their houses in Chalala instead of doing what they are employed to do.
“In government integrity is a must in the public service because we are handling public resources, the same resources that should help us give scholarships to girls to go to school instead of a few technocrats and politicians sharing the money for their own personal benefits.
She hopes that old institutions that had been established to train civil servants and other government workers which were dismantled when privatization was introduced such as NIPA should be re-established to train government workers the importance of principles of good governance, of transparency, responsibility, accountability; in short, integrity.
Mrs Wina’s crusade for the betterment of women in Zambia includes the banking fraternity which she feels can do well to be more sympathetic to financial empowerment of deserving women.
The Bank of Zambia is in the forefront educating commercial banks to help legitimate entrepreneurs in the informal sector throughout the country such as farmers and others. She notes that micro-finance companies are on the increase and hopes that the number of women they can assist will also be on the increase.
Mrs Wina has placed herself well in every area of government as Vice-President. So far, she has not met any resistance in her job even when her interests openly include working extra hard to better the position of women in Zambia.
She has announced that the problem of early pregnancies will soon fall under the office of the Vice- President in the struggle to bring the scourge to an end.
This simple accommodating woman, who at one time was the powerhouse behind the great statesman of Zambia, the, late Arthur Wina, is determined to be remembered as a person who stood for the rights of women even as she fully supported the rights of men at the same time.
Franklin Tembo Senior is a writer and trainer of journalists

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