It has been said that a nation that excludes women in its developmental agenda runs a risk of losing its soul.
We have most certainly excluded women from the most pertinent national agenda by the deliberate feminization of poverty and underdevelopment. Although women constitute 52 percent of the population they have the least access to most development resources including land.
They are particularly discriminated against in training for empowerment because most vocational programmes are dominated by men. As a result most women end up in “soft” jobs which give them little opportunity for professional upward mobility. Those who rise are few in number and can be counted on one hand.
It is a fact that women serve as the backbone of the informal sector. They are a marvel to witness as they engage in all manner of trade. They can be seen trading internally and trekking in cross border trade.
It is however the women with heavy food baskets on their heads, usually with a child strapped to the back who epitomize the work and role of women in the economy. At the break of dawn women can be seen trekking far and wide in search of merchandise to sell in order to sustain their families and perhaps educate future uncaring men.
It is also a fact that the majority of households in Zambia are women headed. The dearth of formal employment means that more and more women are forced into the informal sector; these are women who would, if given a chance, excel in other economic activities.
Sadly the lack of political will means that very little organized effort is made to ensure that the creativity, resilience and hard work that our women exhibit is directed more positively towards the formal economy.
In many parts of the world women constitute a sizeable and very significant part of the formal or organized economy because they have access to vocational and specialized training in addition to being able to access loans and other venture finance to enter into formal business.
Women in Zambia have several uphill battles quite apart from the social gender discrimination that place them as second class citizens. The most pressing of these concerns the oppressive laws that denies them the onerous place they deserve.
While the constitution assures all citizens equal rights without any form of discrimination the same laws provide a section which literally indemnifies or allows discrimination on the basis of customary consideration.
There is urgent need that women in Zambia are taken seriously by the Government, not by establishing a super Ministry but by providing practical facilities, training and opportunities that will enable women advance from menial to more meaningful levels of economic activity.
At the more personal level it is also worrying that the low social status of women deprives them of the ability and the resources needed to make decisions regarding their children’s nutrition and prevents them from accessing the services they need to protect their health, nutrition and survival.
It is imperative therefore that the issue of women empowerment must take a multi dimensional and multidisciplinary approach that tackles the many impediments that prevent them from realizing their full potential.