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Sexual & Women’s Rights Country Overview: Zambia 2020

This series of country context overviews is founded in the Coalition of African Lesbians work in different countries, specifically the Masakhane[1] project in Southern Africa. The project’s focus is on strengthening capabilities of CAL members and partners in different countries through learning in action, as the basis of facilitating effective growth in activism among the groups with which CAL works: lesbian women, women living with HIV and AIDS, sex-workers and young women.[2] As feminists and activists concerned with gender and sexual rights and justice, we understand that current social, political and economic structures, institutions, ideologies and practices undermine our rights and freedoms and restrict our autonomy. This understanding informs both CAL’s areas of focus in its work and the focus in this context overview; Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), sexuality politics specifically expressed in issues of sexual orientation and gender identity, and gender discrimination and violence.

CAL’s approach to its work is also informed by the five factors identified in the “Report of the Study on the Situation of Women Human Rights Defenders in Africa” by the former Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. CAL has modified these factors; patriarchy and heteronormativity, fundamentalisms, militarisation, war and conflict, neoliberal capitalism, crises in democracy and environmental exploitation.

This publication focuses on sexual and gender rights, specifically violence against women, sexual and reproductive health and rights and sexual orientation and gender identity.  It is intended to support Civil Society Organisations, activists and government agencies and institutions in their work to address persisting SRHR issues, gender violence and sexual orientation and gender identity issues.


Population: 18.1 million (United Nations Population Fund)
Women’s Literacy: (UNESCO Institute of Statics)
91.6% [15 – 24 years]
83.1% [15 – 64 years]
46.9% [65 years old and older]
Women’s Employment Rate: 48.3% (World Bank)
Maternal Mortality Ratio: 213 per 100, 000 live births
(Maternal Mortality Estimation Inter-Agency Group (MMEIG))
Women’s HIV prevalence: 58.3% (UNAIDS)
GBV: 45.9% of women have experienced physical/intimate partner violence in their lifetime
(United Nations Women)
GDI: 0.948 (United Nations Development Programme)
GII: 0.540 (United Nations Development Programme)
COVID-19 Status: 1200 confirmed cases, 10 deaths (June 10, 2020) (World Health Organisation)

Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights

As concluded by the World Health Organisation[3] (WHO), Sexual and reproductive health and rights (SHRH) encompass efforts to eliminate preventable maternal and neonatal mortality and morbidity, to ensure quality sexual and reproductive health services, including contraceptive services, and to address sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and cervical cancer, violence against women and girls, and sexual and reproductive health needs of adolescents. Universal access to sexual and reproductive health is essential.

Contraception Access and Use

Zambia has recorded significant progress in ensuring universal access to contraceptives. This has been achieved through inclusive policy actions, introduction of innovations and capacity development for health care providers and institutions and strongly encouraging women and young people, including poor and marginalised groups, to demand and use contraceptives. In 2019, there was a 55% contraceptive prevalence rate among women between the ages of 15 – 49 and a 18% unmet need for contraceptives.[4]

Healthcare workers, when dispensing sexual and reproductive healthcare services, are guided by the Family Planning National Guidelines (2006). The guidelines aim to ensure that premature deaths and illness, particularly those of mothers and children, are prevented while guaranteeing that all individuals and couples are able to freely decide the number of children to have. Furthermore, the guidelines seek to ensure that Zambians are equipped with information and education that enables them to make autonomous decisions about their reproductive and sexual health.

The Reproductive Health Policy, launched by the government in 2015, provides free contraceptives in public health facilities. Research conducted by the Ministry of Health indicates that injectable contraceptives are the most widely used modern method (19%) among currently married women, followed by the pill (12%), implants (6%), and the male condom (4%)[5]. Women in rural areas, the youth and persons with special needs experience greater challenges in accessing family planning services and contraceptives because of stigma and a lack of sensitisation on sexual and reproductive health. These challenges are continuously tackled through collaborations between the Ministry of Health and various NGOs.

Maternal Mortality

The reasons behind the high levels of maternal mortality in Zambia are attributed to medical, economic and socio-cultural factors. Medical causes include hypertensive disorders, infections and complications caused by unsafe abortion. These can often be prevented and alleviated through a quality healthcare system that is yet to be realised in Zambia.

Midwives have indicated that economic factors contribute to maternal mortality in the sense that women often cannot afford the transport costs involved in seeking healthcare services. Clinics and hospitals are usually quite far away from those living in the rural areas and as a result, some births take place in women’s homes with the assistance of other women and without the requisite sanitation and material.  Consequently, a majority of women who die from obstetric causes are in the middle-to-poor income groups.

Socio-cultural factors that contribute to maternal maternity include women’s fear of being vaginally examined by men, which runs contrary to the traditional belief that only a husband ought to see his wife’s vagina. Some women are discouraged by the foul attitudes of healthcare workers who can be mean-spirited and judgmental towards women seeking contraceptives. As a result, women go unattended which results in their untimely deaths.


The Termination of Pregnancy Act (1972) regulates the abortion framework in Zambia. Abortion can only be performed in instances where a continuation of the pregnancy would pose a risk to the physical/mental health of the woman or her existing children, where the foetus is likely to be born with a physical/mental severe ‘abnormality.’ An amendment was later made in 2005 to the Criminal Code to widen the scope to include women whose pregnancies are as a result of rape. In order to assess whether a woman meets the above criteria, her age and socio-economic environment are considered.

Furthermore, the abortion can only be performed by a registered medical practitioner who, together with two other registered medical practitioners, is of the sincere belief that the woman seeking a termination of pregnancy meets the requirements above. In cases where there is a need for an emergency termination to save the woman’s life, the medical doctor performing the abortion does not need the approval of two other medical practitioners. Abortions are only to be carried out in registered hospitals.

Healthcare practitioners can object to performing an abortion on the basis of religious, ethical and moral views. This refusal is known as a conscientious objection and is considered legal in Zambia. The consequences of the conscientious objection severely tamper with women’s autonomy. Furthermore, women who seek to terminate their pregnancies are discouraged from accessing the healthcare system, thereby increasing the likelihood of them having unsafe abortions. These unsafe abortions are often performed under unsanitary conditions which contribute to miscarriages, infections and even death in some instances. Furthermore, those who provide and procure illegal abortions could face up to seven and fourteen years of imprisonment, respectively.

Discrimination and Violence against Women

The incidences of Gender-based violence (GBV) in Zambia are rife. The Demographic Household Survey (DHS), conducted in 2007, revealed that from the age of 15 years onwards almost half of all Zambian women have experienced physical violence. The underlying and contributory factors of the disproportionate violence experienced by women ranges from their economic dependence on men which makes them vulnerable, patriarchal norms and values widely held and perpetuated through cultural and traditional practices and a lack of legitimate law enforcement.

The Anti-Gender Based Violence Act (No. 1 of 2011) was enacted to tackle all genres of violence in Zambia. It defines violence as “any physical, mental, social or economic abuse against a person because of that person’s gender.” Physical, sexual and psychological violence that is committed in public, in private, explicitly or implicitly through coercion or threats are all recognised by the Act. This wide scope is beneficial to survivors of violence and helps to debunk the myth that the only form of violence is overt and physical. Additionally, the National Action Plan on Gender-Based Violence seeks to strengthen GBV legislature in Zambia, sensitise Zambians on the reasons why violence is wrong and should be strongly condemned by all persons and lastly, to provide meaningful support to survivors of all kinds of violence.

In an attempt to address gender inequality in Zambia, the Ministry of Gender was established in 2002. The Ministry’s main priorities are gender mainstreaming, monitoring the extent to which Zambia is in compliance with national gender policies, promotion and protection of women’s rights through advocacy and lobbying, amongst others.

Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression

Zambia, like several countries in Africa which are former colonies, inherited laws and legal systems which remain unchanged in most instances. Laws on homosexuality are among such which have not been repealed or amended. Sex between two or more men or two or more women is criminalised. The Penal Code categorises sexual intercourse between people of the same sex as an ‘unnatural offence’ which attracts life imprisonment, at maximum. Furthermore, those who attempt to commit an ‘unnatural offence’ could face up to fourteen (14) years imprisonment. Acts of ‘gross indecency’ that are found to be committed between women or between men carry a minimum imprisonment term of seven (7) and maximum of fourteen (14) years.

In 2019, two men were sentenced to fourteen years imprisonment after being convicted of contravening the Penal Code by committing an ‘unnatural offence.’ After the men were arrested, they were subjected to anal testing which has been established, an international law, as a form of torture. It is evident therefore that the levels of violence on the basis of sexual orientation are severely high in Zambia. The President has made numerous public averments in which he has shunned homosexuality and condemned it as something that runs contrary to the religious, traditional and conservative Zambian values.[6]

Consequently, the LGBTI+ community of Zambia face high levels of discrimination and have very little legal protection. To add insult to injury, The Public Order Act is used in Zambia to repress rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly in Zambia. Police crackdown on human rights defenders, journalists, critics of the government and use excessive force against peaceful protesters.[7] This greatly frustrates the efforts of human rights defenders in Zambia.

Treaties Ratification Table[8]

Below are the sexual and reproductive health and women’s rights treaties to which Zambia is a party. By virtue of being a signatory to these instruments, Zambia is obligated to abide by the treaties and ensure that there is a harmony between its domestic laws and international law standards.

TreatySignedRatification, Accession (a), Succession (d)
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women17 July 198021 June 1985
African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights17 January 198310 January 1984
Protocol to The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol)3 August 20052 May 2006

Organisations in Zambia Working on Women’s & Sexual Rights

  • Planned Parenthood Association of Zambia (PPAZ)
  • Society for Family Planning (SFH)
  • Churches Health Association of Zambia (CHAZ)
  • Medicines Transparency Alliance Zambia (MeTA)
  •  PATH
  •  AMREF Zambia
  • Centre for Reproductive Health Education (CRHE)
  • Population Council (PC)
  • Family Health International (FHI360)
  • Copper Rose (Education SRH women and Girls)
  • Marie Stopes International (MSI)
  • NGO Coordinating Council (NGOCC)
  • Zambia National Women’s Lobby (ZNWL)
  • Women’s Alliance for Equality (WAFE)
  • The Lotus Identity
  • Friends of Rainka
  • Trans Bantu

[1] Masakhane is a Nguni word which translates to ‘Let us build together’.

[2] CAL works on issues affecting all women on the continent, but works closely with these specific groups because they are further marginalised in society. 

[3] WHO (2014) Sexual and reproductive health and rights: a global development, health, and human rights priority, WHO. World Health Organization. Available at:

[4] UN World Family Planning Report: 

[5] Lasong, J, Zhuang, Y et al. Determinants of modern contraceptive use among married women of reproductive age: a cross-sectional study in rural Zambia. BMJ Open 2020;10:e030980. doi:10.1136/ bmjopen-2019-030980 –

[6] Igual, R. ‘Zambia’s president won’t “impose” gay rights on his country’:

[7] Amnesty International Report: The State of the World’s Human Rights 2017/2018 –

[8] This table is focused on the treaties relevant to the focus of this context overview, for a more comprehensive database of treaties signed by Zambia, and their ratification status, visit the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) website :,  the African Union (AU) website: and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) website: .


House, P. B. (2017) Amnesty International Report 2017/18. Available at:  (Accessed: 10 June 2020).

Lasong, J. et al. (2020) ‘Determinants of modern contraceptive use among married women of reproductive age: a cross-sectional study in rural Zambia’, BMJ Open, 10, p. 30980.
doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2019-030980.

Roberto, I. (2019) Zambia’s president won’t ‘impose’ gay rights on his country, Mamba Online . Available at:  (Accessed: 1 June 2020).