By Jo Fidgen BBC News- One of Zambia’s most famous singers has revealed how she was badly beaten by her husband. She now hopes to lift the lid on the country’s ingrained acceptance of domestic violence.
“My husband will kill me,” giggles Saboi Imboela nervously. “But, yes, he once beat me up so badly I reported him to the police.”
The 32-year old is one of Zambia’s top vocalists. Her husband is a popular actor, Owas Ray Mwape. This is the first time she has spoken publicly about the beating she received at his hands, and she wriggles uncomfortably at the memory.
“It was the police who begged me not to take it further,” she recalls, revealing some of the engrained attitudes she is now taking on.
“They told me: ‘We know how you women are. We’ll lock him up and in a minute or two, you’ll change your mind and want him released.’”
Her doctor also dissuaded her from reporting the assault, as did some of her friends.
‘Part of growing up’
Campaigners believe more than half of Zambian women have suffered domestic abuse but cases rarely come to light because of the stigma attached to speaking out.
Young women are taught by their elders to accept punishment from their husbands when they are disobedient. Even cooking a bad meal warrants a smack.
“That’s how you grow up in Africa,” explains Mr Mwape.
“To be a man, you need to discipline a woman, give her a slap or two. You know, in our culture, it’s OK because that’s how we feel we love our women.”
It is a message driven home at boys’ initiation ceremonies – chastisement is a sign of affection and a woman never achieves the status of an adult. Like a child she needs to be “trained” to behave well.
In some parts of the country tradition allows a man to beat his wife if he survives a crocodile attack.
In others, a wife’s infidelity is revealed when her newborn baby coughs. She must take the consequences.
“Tradition is used as a cover for domestic violence,” complains Johnson Tembo.
As chairman of the Men’s Network, he tries to persuade his peers to alter their behaviour.
But he believes women’s attitudes need to change too.
“Some women are foolish enough to think that if they are not beaten by their husbands, they’re not loved,” he says.
It is a problem recognised by the Zambian government’s Gender in Development Division.
Director Christine Kalamwina is forthright about the challenges she faces in tackling domestic abuse.
“The majority of women enjoy a beating, because they are made to believe it is part of our tradition,” she says.
She believes the answer is to create awareness that violence against women is discrimination.
“Then they can stand up and claim their rights,” she says.
Those rights are being discussed with the drafting of an anti-domestic violence bill.
As it stands, the law does not recognise attacks on women as a specific crime. Cases are treated as simple assault.
But the bill, which is designed to change that, is already running into difficulties.
A clause outlawing marital rape has been dropped because of cultural considerations.
And Ms Kalamwina says it is proving hard to reach agreement on where to draw the line between courtship rituals and sexual harassment in a country where women are expected to play hard to get.
‘Partner or doormat?’
But even if the law is tightened, would it make a difference?
The risks of taking a stand against domestic violence are too great for many women. They are often blamed for provoking their husbands and ostracised for exposing them.
Divorce may follow, with devastating consequences.
“Abused women tell us they don’t want their relationships to break up because the husband is the bread-winner, and they won’t be able to take care of their children,” says Hope Kasese Kumalo, the acting national co-ordinator for Woman and Law in Southern Africa.
“There’s a lot of glorification of marriage in this country,” she says.
“Some women who are economically independent will not speak out against violence because they want to stay married at all costs.
“If you are married you are respected; if you are not, people will think there is something wrong with you.”
A battered woman who runs to her parents is often sent back to her abusive husband.
Fortunately, not all cases end badly. At home in Lusaka, Ms Imboela and Mr Mwape snuggle up on the sofa together.
“He’s a good husband, we’ve sorted out our differences,” smiles Ms Imboela.
Mr Mwape counts himself lucky.
“I was ready to go jail for what I did; I deserved it. I have stopped hitting my wife for the sake of our boys. I don’t want them to become what I became,” he says.
“I’m pleased Saboi has spoken about this. That’s the way to go.”
Is he worried about his reputation?
“No, I don’t have concerns that people will think less of me now, because in Zambia, 99.9% of men have committed that crime before,” he says.
Ms Imboela is now working on a song about women’s rights, called Yenze Nthawi Yakayena (That Was Then).
“Men have always mistreated their wives. But times have changed, and men must too,” she sings.
She says she hopes abused women will hear her song and “stand up and say: ‘This is wrong’.
“And that men will look at their situation and say: ‘I love my wife and I shouldn’t treat her like this. She’s my partner, not my doormat’,” she says.