Commentary by Felly Nkweto Simmonds

Some of the worst cases of violence against women in Zambia have been with professional women who begin to challenge the economic power of men, in particular their power in decision making - the power to say how many children they have or the power to say when or whether they leave the house. Economic empowerment comes with its own problems and that's where we need to start. For me what makes young women vulnerable is the basic issue of power dynamics where both gender and economics work at the same time.

Traditionally, the power of decision making lies with the men whether as fathers, heads of household, husbands etc. From the moment a female baby is born, they are disempowered; decisions are made whether they can go to school, whether they can go out and play instead of doing chores etc. So even before we consider economic vulnerability, females are already less empowered in the way they are brought up as girls.

As a result of how they are socialised and reared, women often do not believe they deserve economic empowerment. What we need to appreciate is that girls and women become adults already disempowered at a very fundamental level, where you think of yourself as being less because you don't have the same privileges, the same education and even if you do you are encouraged to think of it 'as less'. You go to college the choice of courses for men and women are already different. This is not only in Zambia, it is everywhere, but here it is exaggerated.

So women go and do those courses but they still want to get married and the degree they do enables them to get married - that is what it is there for. And of course their parents are quite happy to get a big dowry for them because they have that education, which is really why they made you stay at the University of Zambia (UNZA). So although they get that extra education, it is not necessarily for them, it is for the benefit of those around them. If they have a degree from UNZA they are a commodity.

People actually believe that there is no point applying for a job if it is in the paper because they think 'if I am not beautiful, I won't get the job'. Women need to value themselves; to value yourself is really difficult unless someone values you. And sometimes people value you for reasons that are not about you - 'I value my daughter because she will bring me a nice dowry, she can maintain me' and all of this. So by the time a woman gets a job and a salary, is she going to get to keep it? The tension starts there. The women will have to ask for the money because the man thinks 'I am the one with the money, I should have the money'. There is an 'asking' relationship going on. When we talk about girls and empowerment, we need to empower them in terms of a better education, and better money but the empowerment also needs to be internal. Women need to be given self confidence, they need to be people and have the right to make decisions and have the right to marry someone who is not going to belittle what they have done.

So although you get that extra education, it is not necessarily for you, it is for the benefit of those around you. If you have a degree from UNZA you are a commodity.

Economic empowerment has to go in tandem with other types of empowerment. If we do other income generating activities, they cause problems because they just throw money at people. For example, if a woman gets a loan in her women's group and she goes home with the money, most of the time the money will be taken by the husband. When we do economic empowerment activities, we have to be very careful what it is that we do, so that we don't disempower women even more. This is what has happened - I have seen it.

Economic empowerment for individual girls is first of all internal. Get the girl to think about themselves, to value themselves - that is internal self confidence, self esteem and then the money can work because you are your own self. You can make your own decisions about your life, your children's lives, where they go to school etc. What makes women feel less empowered, even if they have money in their hand, is that they have no control, no power. All of these things undercut women. All women need to be empowered, but there is more work to be done to get there. I know women who are economically empowered, but it is at a cost - most of them are not married and, for example, when a woman dies, where do you think her property goes? To the husband! So once people are empowered, they need to know how to keep what they have.

I want girls to go to school, to be taught how to be people, to think that they are worthy; they are real whole people with integrity, so that if they do economic empowerment, they have that as a baseline for themselves so they will have the power to negotiate. The more economically empowered you are, your house will fill up with orphans. Women always have to care for their parents, their siblings, their siblings' children. I don't think there is a woman I know who works who doesn't have orphans and other children in the house. They put their siblings through school and care for them.

Rural women are better off in some ways because they don't depend so much on money. For rural women, it is land that is important. If women can have access to and legally own land which they can farm, they can grow. If you can grow maize to eat and sell the surplus you can buy the other things you need. People are better off, not in terms of cars and things like this, but in the way they live. I am not saying they are not poor in the rural areas, they are poor. They are poor and getting poorer. But when people get sick and die in towns, where do they send the orphans - back to the village!. So the woman who has a small piece of land and grows some vegetables now has a burden of children. So those children then have to go to school, as well as her own children if she has them. HIV and AIDS is making rural people poorer because the burden is getting bigger. When women have access to land, they are so resourceful, they grow things! Even in the towns, the most resourceful people are women. They grow vegetables, they keep chickens - they have several jobs at the same time. They are looking after lots of people. So the more money women have, the more responsibilities they are expected to shoulder, especially in the time of HIV and AIDS.

What makes women vulnerable to HIV? It is utterly the lives that women live, the lives girls are born into, the lives they are forced to live in, the only lives they can live.

There are lots of women who have power out there who are being mentors to the younger women, so it is not all bleak. But Zambia is still not ready for these women.

If women don't have economic power, they are totally at risk of HIV and AIDS infection. To survive, women will put themselves at even more risk, so a married woman who knows her husband has two girlfriends is never going to say 'you are not coming back into this bed'. The cultural expectations are that he is a man; he can do whatever he likes. Most HIV infections are in stable relationships, in marriage. Women will look for money - if they have children to feed, they will sell their bodies, even for a drink, they will sell their bodies. Women are more at risk the less money they have and the less control they have over their lives. And of course there is the whole thing about older men and younger women - so girls expect to have an older boyfriend to supply things e.g. finance, transport, communications etc.; a young guy is the one they go partying with.

What makes women vulnerable to HIV? It is utterly the lives that women live, the lives girls are born into, the lives they are forced to live in, the only lives they can live.

It sounds very bleak for those women and it is bleak for them, but we should be giving them education, giving them skills - risk assessment skills - know when you are at risk. Women walk blindly into things not realising they are in a terrible place. They think 'you don't want us to have fun'. Have fun, but just have fun safely, otherwise you will never get old! You need to have control. A woman's life is a risky life in Zambia. It is not that women are always victims but sometimes women think they are in control and act on it, assuming they are actually in control.

Men are more at risk because they are the ones with more control and in theory, they can control the risk factors, but they choose not to, whereas it is the opposite for women. To choose to not be at risk is to stand up to a lot of things. It's not as simple as saying 'I'm going to protect myself'. This is why you can have as many abstinence programmes as you want - people don't abstain. In the moment, girls think they choose to have sex, but all sorts of other things are happening actually. They don't have much choice. The abstinence messages need to be targeted at older men - men need to abstain from having sex with children, men need to abstain from having sex with every woman that they see.

In the day of HIV and AIDS, they are saying it is ok for your husband to go and get HIV over there etc. until you are completely infected - that is marriage, and that is acceptable because you are a wife. If he does anything to you, keep it in the house! If he slaps you, beats you, bashes your head against the wall, keep it in the house!

A lot of people don't realise what marriage is. It is like a big game but you only have a marriage certificate when you get married, not a marriage. Marriage in Zambia is very different. Traditional teachings tell women that when you are married you need to please your husband this way, if he travels, don't worry, he will come back to you. In the day of HIV and AIDS, they are saying it is ok for your husband to go and get HIV over there etc. until you are completely infected - that is marriage, and that is acceptable because you are a wife. If he does anything to you, keep it in the house! If he slaps you, beats you, bashes your head against the wall, keep it in the house!

People who have power don't exercise it directly; they get you to do it yourself. They teach you how to oppress yourself. A man doesn't have to come to the kitchen parties and bridal showers to tell the woman how to behave, her mother will do it. Because if her husband sends her back to the family, people will point to the mother and say, what kind of mother are you? Did you not teach your daughter? Men go drinking under a tree, and women are killing each other over here. Oppressed people are very good at oppressing other people.

Women in positions of leadership are also on the side of the oppressor because they are powerful people. They play the same game. There is no women's movement in Zambia; there was a fledgling movement in the 80's. Zambian women were sent to international conferences to speak about Zambia and then come home and do nothing. So that was seen as one way to gain power - to become a spokesperson. For me it is the same as people who say they are activists, but don't do anything. Unless you actually do something, it is just noise.

The main thing is how do we bring up the next generation of women in Zambia? We have to start at an individual level in terms of behavioural change, so we have to start at an individual level of beliefs and values, and this is a problem. You can't just say change your behaviour by using a condom - that is nonsense. You have to start with what is sex to people, how do they use it, for each other, against each other? You need to challenge belief systems but also enable young people to see that there are different things that will, and can, happen. And they can happen. If things are going to change for young people, then adults need to change. It should be up to adults to say - "we will not marry our daughters off until they are 18." A girl cannot say this. If parents say our daughter is not going to get married until she finishes school, can you imagine the difference that would make in the way that we value our girls, in the way they value themselves? We can all do something, no matter where you are.

Oppressed people are afraid of freedom because if you are free you have to make decisions and take responsibility. Victimhood is sometimes a very comfortable position.

Oppressed people are afraid of freedom because if you are free you have to make decisions and take responsibility. Victim-hood is sometimes a very comfortable position. People need to stop thinking like - "look at your daughter, she is 27, she has a degree, she has a job, no one will marry her'" - that is totally the wrong way around. They should be falling over themselves for her. But people are afraid of freedom. Girls need to know they have a choice.

Felly Nkweto Simmonds is a sociologist and has worked with the Corridors of Hope HIV and AIDS Prevention Project, and is currently an advisor with the Population Council in Zambia.