In the Zambian dock, it's good to be a man
In Zambia, the battle for equality between men and women is being waged on many fronts—not least concerning the sentences handed down by courts.
The trial of Chrystal Denn is a case in point.
In the course of her turbulent five-year marriage to Trevor, a professional football player, Chrystal suffered extensive spousal abuse. Her husband beat her up, both at home and in full view of others.
After a failed suicide attempt, Chrystal finally killed her spouse in the course of an argument, in 1999.
She was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Women’s rights activists promptly lobbied for the sentence to be overturned—not because they condoned Denn’s actions but because they felt the law was not being fairly applied in Zambia.
Men who kill their wives in this Southern African country are typically charged with manslaughter, rather than the more serious crime of murder.
Many are given suspended sentences—others serve about three years of jail time, at most. No man has ever been sentenced to life imprisonment for killing his wife.
“It is time to redress this imbalance. It is time to have the law applied to all, equitably,” says Matrine Chuulu, national coordinator of the Zambian chapter of Women in Law in Southern Africa (Wilsa), a regional network of lawyers.
In a recent publication entitled Justice for All, Wilsa gives additional examples of cases that demonstrate the imbalance in sentencing for men and women.
It cites a 1994 case involving Teddy Kasuba, who opened fire on a car that his wife was travelling in, killing her.
After Kasuba claimed that he had been confused at the time of the incident, the court said his actions reflected what “any reasonable man could have done”. It convicted him of manslaughter, and gave him a suspended sentence.
The husband of Nolisa Nata beat her to death in 1998. But the court sentenced him to 18 months in jail for manslaughter—and advised him not to be violent when he remarried, “because you may not be so lucky next time”.
This contrasts sharply with the case of Esther Mwiimbe, who killed her abusive husband in 1984 by pouring boiling oil over him after he threatened to kill her and her children.
Mwiimbe pleaded self-defence and cumulative provocation. But, the court rejected the plea and sentenced her to death.
She was pardoned by former president Kenneth Kaunda in 1991 after spending more than seven years in prison.
Effects of abuse
Chuulu says Zambian courts are failing to recognise the effects of domestic abuse when considering the mental state of women involved in killings: “The court is quick to reduce charges of femicide to manslaughter on claims of provocation for the slightest of wrongs, ranging from not cooking food to serving cold food—but does not consider the same in homicides.”
Instead, notes the Wilsa report, there is a tendency to focus on “what the woman did to bring this upon herself”.
Take the case of Margaret Kazhila, who was killed by her husband in 1998 after a domestic dispute: the court sentenced her husband to just 12 months’ imprisonment, because “the deceased was to blame”.
This trend was clearly evident during Mwiimbe’s trial.
Her husband was a high-ranking member of the intelligence services, who had subjected Mwiimbe to the same torture techniques used against people interrogated by the state.
Mwiimbe’s vagina and toenails were burnt with sulphuric acid; she also suffered stomach problems because of numerous beatings with sticks, iron-fitted hosepipes and her husband’s fists.
“I had a police file which tabulated all the complaints I had laid over the years about my husband’s cruelty,” says Mwiimbe. “But that file was never produced in court. It disappeared and I was seen by the court as a cold-blooded killer.”
Mwiimbe says the judge in her trial admitted, upon her release, that the material in the file might have changed his view of the case.
But she is sceptical about whether this sort of pronouncement marks a change in the way the legal system views women who kill their partners, claiming the courts “are naturally” biased against them.
“The judges are men, so they empathise with their menfolk,” observes Mwiimbe. “It’s a cultural thing—women are considered chattels ... [and] people are uncomfortable about dealing with spousal abuse, so they do not want to deal with its results.”
Classified as assaults
This is further reflected in the way in which cases of domestic abuse are handled. Under Zambian law, these incidents are generally classified as assaults.
In cases where the parties are not related, the police and courts take claims of assault seriously.
But, if the parties are husband and wife, the matter tends to be considered a “domestic dispute”—and not worth the trouble of investigating.
In the case of Denn, the court recognised that her marriage had not been a peaceful one, but refused to take into account the eight reports filed about her husband’s abuse.
These included documentation of an incident in which he demanded to inspect her sexual organs for evidence of infidelity—this in the presence of a servant.
The court also refused to consider the fact that Denn had two small children who were in need of care.
Yet, in another case involving a man who beat his wife to death, the court said it was mindful that the accused would now have to look after his children alone.
The judge sentenced him to only two years’ imprisonment.
“The court looks from the point of a view of a reasonable man and not from the view of a reasonable battered woman,” says former Judge Fuckfon Kabazo, adding: “The threat of being killed or severely injured is very real for any battered woman, and it is time the courts recognised the reality of the dangers for many women.”
There are currently two cases pending of women who killed their husbands in 2004.
Chrystal Denn, meanwhile, has reached the end of the road in the quest for her sentence—which has now been reduced to 15 years—to be overturned completely.
Her final hope is Article 59 of the Constitution, which allows the head of state to pardon or reduce the sentence of a convict.
Wilsa has petitioned the president in this regard, and is awaiting a response.—Sapa-IPS