Holding Up Half the Sky: How Zambia’s Women went from Housewives to Breadwinners

A female Zambian farmer tries out a groundnut sheller. Photograph Swathi Sridharan
A female Zambian farmer tries out a groundnut sheller. Photograph Swathi Sridharan


Women’s status has been greatly enhanced by their growing share of employment, but gender relations are still far from equal.

When the United Kingdom was ruling over its southern African colony of Northern Rhodesia, it instilled in the urban population many of the domestic traditions and values it kept at home. The male of the household was expected to be the breadwinner while the female a housewife. But in the same way this 1950s ideal has largely disintegrated in the UK, so too has it in what is now Zambia.

My research in a low-income township in the Copperbelt Province began after the 2007/8 global financial crisis, just as the price of copper was starting to rebound. The international financial slowdown had halted mining activities and induced mass layoffs. At this time, my neighbours expressed a profound sense of economic insecurity and often sharply contrasted the situation with their nostalgic recollections of a bygone era of supposedly full (male) employment and cradle-to-grave social security. This was also a time of strictly gendered roles.

Under British colonial rule, urban women were trained in domestic skills in order to cheaply support and maintain a healthy male labour force. As well as being imposed from above, the European ideology of ‘good housewives’ was also keenly adopted by many middle-class African families looking to distinguish themselves.

In the aftermath of independence in 1964, women maintained this domestic role while Zambia’s rich copper deposits continued to be mined, managed and administered by men – as wage labourers, breadwinners, civil servants and politicians. Husbands tended to refuse their wives employment − not least because it would reveal their inability to fulfil their culturally expected roles as the sole breadwinners − and were able to do so thanks to high copper prices, limited mechanisation and protected local industries, all of which helped to secure employment and enable men to provide for their families single-handedly.

Helen, an elected to representative of a low-income area and whose two-roomed house I shared during my time in Zambia, recalled how during her adolescence in the 1970s, women had little economic role to play outside their own homes.

“A long time ago, the majority of women didn’t know about selling,” she said. “What they were doing is depend on their husbands because their husbands had jobs − they were working in industries. Industries were all over.”

“Historically women were oppressed,” she continued. “Even if she was educated, men would not want that person to go and work. They just wanted her to be a housewife…Women were very oppressed because men didn’t want a woman to do things, to work or have her own money.”

Indeed, in this era, urban women primarily focused on unpaid care work, which was devalued in a market-based economy. They were economically dependent upon men and widely perceived as ‘passive’. With multiple children and a heavy burden of domestic work, their lives centred on the home, making them socially isolated. And lacking opportunities to share ideas with fellow women and collectively contemplate a more egalitarian alternative, many urban housewives felt alone in their suffering, acquiescing to its inevitability.

“My husband used to beat me,” disclosed Gloria, a 66-year-old divorced market trader, selling dried caterpillars in her informal settlement. “I didn’t have any friends. I just stayed at home…They didn’t count us women historically. We were suffering. You perceive it to be normal, but it’s not good.”

Women were expected to stay at home while men dominated the socially-valued domains, leading many to presume women were less worthy of status, respect and influence. “I was thinking that a woman is supposed to be lower than the man,” Matthew, a middle-aged man, recalled thinking when he was younger.

Many women adopted these gendered stereotypes themselves and deferred to men when it came to leadership roles. As 42-year-old onion trader and political activist Mike, recalled, “Women used to say ‘Only a man can do it’.” And although some women were privately critical of such beliefs, they still tended to conform so as to maintain social respect. After all, the very few female politicians there were tended to be denigrated as prostitutes by those who refused to believe that they could have succeeded by their own merit. Given the limited demand and supply of women leaders, men accounted for over 90% of parliamentarians during the 1960s and 1980s.

What a way to make a living

It seems that it is only now – 50 years after Zambian independence from British colonial rule – that these political beliefs are being questioned, and Zambia still lags far behind its neighbours when it comes to female political representation. However, in the economic sphere, changes in gender relations have gone a lot further and began quite some time ago.

In 1983, the Zambian government – having become heavily-indebted – turned to the International Monetary Fund and neoliberal economic restructuring. Living costs rapidly increased while infant industries collapsed. Furthermore, with falling copper prices and increased mechanisation, employment in mining – the lifeblood of the Copperbelt – plummeted and halved over the 1990s.

When Matthew lost his job at a mine in 1988, he began trading in the market. His family moved to a smaller house, sold assets and stopped eating breakfast. Like many participants in my ethnographic research, he frequently reiterated the magnitude of the economic change and the ‘descent’ into poverty. Things didn’t improve in the short-term, and by 1991, Matthew was struggling to pay his children’s school fees. His wife proposed she start trading non-perishable goods from home, such as dried sardines and beans, and despite concerns about cultural expectations, Matthew relented.

Across the Copperbelt, many other households were having similar conversations and making those same decisions as the economic situation worsened.

In the two decades or so since then, female employment has risen significantly. Meanwhile, occupational segregation is also declining as women seek work that is available and better paid such as being a miner, mechanic or electrician.

“Historically people were afraid, saying it’s men’s work,” said Rose, a divorced mother of six who left her job as a hospital cleaner to become dump truck driver at a open pit mine. “This challenge made us go out in the compound to encourage women. Don’t just sit, you can do what a man can do.”

Rose has also now successfully trained as an explosives engineer, while many other women are increasingly following in her footsteps to provide for their families. Given today’s financial hardship, women’s earnings are increasingly appreciated and no longer denigrated as being merely ‘supplementary’.

Furthermore, many people now applaud ‘strong’ women who fight to support their families rather than shame their husbands. And gender stereotypes are weakening as people gain exposure to a critical mass of women undertaking what were once seen as masculine roles and presumed to be beyond women’s abilities.

“She helps the family like a man,” said BanaMuyunda, a 39-year-old mushroom trader and political activist, referring to her sister BanaFlo. BanaFlo works as a mine dump truck driver and single parent, and “gets a lot of respect ” from her parents. “A person who helps the family is respected, loved and blessed,” added BanaMuyunda.

All taking and no giving?

If it hadn’t been for Zambia’s economic troubles in the 1980s and 1990s, it seems likely that the British colonial legacy of a male breadwinner and female housewife would have persisted for much longer in Zambia. After all, families would have had little compulsion to support female employment without the financial need to, since it went against their gender beliefs.

As it is, the erosion of these beliefs has been incredibly significant. The resulting critical mass of women demonstrating their equal competence in masculine (socially-valued) domains is – slowly – undermining gender stereotypes. “Women can do what men can do” has become a popular slogan of gender equality in the Copperbelt.

However, problems remain, including the fact that despite women’s growing responsibility for household financial provision, there has not been a commensurate redistribution of housework. Instead, Zambian women − like their British, and indeed global, counterparts − typically remained saddled with a double burden of paid and unpaid labour, resulting in a longer working day. Women have become the family’s shock-absorbers, burdened with responsibilities for both domestic work and also household finances.

In response to this phenomenon, we might seriously consider Gary Barker’s suggestion of “a global goal of men and boys doing 50% of the world’s unpaid care work” – applicable to all nations. Notwithstanding the incredible progress that has been made on both sides of the Sahara, gender equality now requires that individual men, together with governments, share the load of unpaid, low status care work.

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