Since 2019 the Sistah Sistah Foundation (SSF) has marched in protest of sexual and gender-based violence in Zambia. Zambia’s national Gender Based Violence (GBV) statistics allege that a total of 20,540 GBV cases were reported annually in 2021 compared with 26,370 GBV cases in 2020, illustrating the prevalence of the issue across the country. However, chants used by SSF protestors (sometimes involving explicit references to female genitalia) and the brandishing of specific colors alleged to resemble those of the gay pride flag have garnered criticism from Zambia’s Christian conservative population and other religious groups. On the 6th and 7th of March 2023, the Zambian police detained and arrested three members of the SSF, and one march attendee.
An official statement released by the SSF on the 8th March alleges that “online discourse on social media tabloids and blog sites” does not reflect the true nature and intended “purpose of the march, and grievances of victims of sexual assault and abuse”. The SSF press release statement asserts the “blog sites and personalities have pushed a different narrative about the march, and deflected the conversation and peddled false information to the detriment of the cause of the march which was intended to bring awareness to sexual and gender-based violence; and all victims of sexual and gender based violence.” It is this misinformation that has caused the arrest of members of the SSF and one member of the public.
The 1996 Zambian Constitution asserts under Article 11(b) that every person in Zambia is entitled to fundamental rights, including the right to freedom of expression, assembly, and association. This means the decision by SSF to host a march on the 4th of March in protest of the sexual abuse and GBV against women and girls in Zambia is constitutionally protected under the right to Freedom of Assembly and the right to Freedom of Expression. For public protests, the Public Order Act 1955 requires seven days’ notice of a public assembly; a failure to provide such notice would make such an assembly unlawful and tantamount to a criminal offence. However, the SSF followed protocol and notified the police service, even arranging for a “police escort throughout the march” to ensure peaceful protest. In spite of this, the arrests were made on grounds of “unlawful assembly and giving the police false information”.
Deputy Police Public Relations Officer Danny Mwale states that the SSF exhibited a different agenda from that granted by the notice, because according to the police forces the new agenda by the SSF appeared to advocate LGBTQIA+ issues. In modern day Zambia, Sections 155 and 157 of the Penal Code Chapter 87 criminalise homosexuality. Upon taking office in August 2021, President Hakainde Hichilema and the New Dawn government have embarked on a human rights project that has brought about the repeal of the defamation of the president and the abolishment of the death penalty. However, it appears the decision to defend human rights in Zambia is selective and deeply rooted in Christian Conservative values.
In sum, the New Dawn government is more likely to engage with human rights that will increase its appeal abroad and at home but will not seriously consider or even engage with rights that undermine what former president Chiluba declared as a “Christian Nation” (as asserted by the preamble of Zambia’s constitution). Former President Lungu was explicitly anti-gay rights and even went as far as to oust US ambassador to Zambia Daniel Foote, who stated he was “horrified” by the 15-year jail term imposed on a gay couple. Lungu defended his anti-homosexuality stance by stressing that homosexuality was “unbiblical and un-Christian”. Hichilema’s anti-gay rights stance likewise indicates he will continue the successive failure by Zambian governments to address LGBTQIA+ rights, seriously undermining his broader human rights law reform project.
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