To Stop Gender-Based Violence, We Need to Talk About It
Reflections on a Visit to Zambia
Written by Sophie Steele, International Medical Corps UK Volunteer
Before arriving at the local Zambian university, I had imagined that the biggest difference between it and my own university would be that, in this case, I was a teacher, not a student.
It soon became apparent, however, that the defining aspect for me of Zambian higher education would be my gender.
The classrooms at the Victoria Falls University of Technology in Livingstone, Zambia, contained the bare essentials: a chalkboard and a dozen desks and chairs. The sparse room in which I and my fellow volunteers stood soon filled as the pupils filtered in. I recognised a scene from my own teenage years: a group of female students gathered at the front, while male students stayed together, just behind.
The room flooded with energy when Leanne—part of our group of volunteers, which had come to the university to talk about gender-based violence—announced that she had travelled to Zambia from France. The students had not missed the football mania of 2018, so the room filled with applause from the male students in recognition that France had won the FIFA World Cup. The female students rolled their eyes—it was clear that they didn’t miss the mania.
After dividing the students into groups, I and my teaching partner Roberto—who, like me, was a volunteer from England—joined a room of 10 students to hold a workshop about gender-based violence. Roberto and I had been in Zambia for a week and it was already apparent that the beliefs about gender in Livingstone differed from anything we had experienced back home.
To gain an insight into the students’ ideas about gender, we began with a word-association activity. As we anticipated, the word ‘women’ produced associations like ‘sensitive’, ‘emotional’ and ‘caring’, while students tied the word ‘men’ to terms like ‘leader’, ‘father’ and ‘important’.
The students soon followed these answers with words that Roberto and I were not as prepared for: ‘women’ was associated with words like ‘weak’, ‘sad’ and ‘crying’, while ‘angry’, ‘loud’ and ‘scary’ were some suggested for ‘men’. We could see the disagreement in the young women’s faces, reinforced by subtle but unmistakable headshakes. We sensed that they wanted to respond—yet they didn’t.
In an attempt to encourage the women to share the thoughts that lay behind their silence, we carried out another task: we asked everyone to close their eyes and simply raise their hand if they agreed with the statements we read out—creating an environment of anonymity that we hoped would give them the freedom to respond honestly.
Numerous raised hands proved that the women knew they should not be subject to physical abuse—including forced sex and beatings—though even these anonymous expressions came with a wavering hand. They still doubted their own beliefs.
Other answers varied widely. Many of the young women believed that their father had the final say over all matters, or that they needed their boyfriend’s permission to go out. In response to the statement ‘a woman should provide her husband with a son’, uncertainty crept into their expressions—these educated young women had never been asked to consider such questions.
Though the young men clearly accepted the notion of male superiority, statements surrounding physical, sexual and emotional violence fractured the group. One student simply stopped answering, while others’ answers were arbitrary. One young man’s hand remained decisively raised in response to any statement that positioned men in power or control.
As the exercise ended, the discussion was, once again, monopolised by the men.
The views of the student who had kept his hand raised were clearly familiar to his male classmates. They exchanged glances with one another, anticipating his speech promoting the superiority of men. However, as we began to examine his beliefs and the moral issues underlying them, the environment in the classroom changed.
The young women began talking—first to each other, then to us and, finally, to their male classmates. They shared personal stories of ill-treatment and hardship—and their male classmates started to listen.
These intelligent young women in the classroom knew their rights, yet until we began a discussion that challenged the accepted beliefs, they had kept their beliefs hidden. Instead, the male voices had drowned out their dissension from the accepted cultural beliefs.
When we repeated the hand-raising exercise, the young women’s hands wavered less. The new atmosphere had empowered them to be confident in their beliefs. And though the student’s hand that had never dropped remained raised high (years of unopposed beliefs won’t change in a day) there was a change in his male classmates. Their answers suggested that they had begun to reject physical and emotional violence against women and recognise the rights of their female peers.
I learned that day that even small steps—like simply talking about an issue—are important. The change I witnessed after a day of conversation taught me this: to stop gender-based violence, we must talk about it.