Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 January 2018, 08:43 GMT

Zambia: Forced marriages, particularly within the Bemba ethnic group, and availability of state protection; existence, among the Bemba people, of the practices called "Ichisungu" and "Ndembo" prior to such a marriage, and if so, information on how those practices are conducted, including the persons who conduct them (April 2005)

Publisher Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada
Author Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada
Publication Date 13 April 2005
Citation / Document Symbol ZMB43484.E
Reference 1
Cite as Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Zambia: Forced marriages, particularly within the Bemba ethnic group, and availability of state protection; existence, among the Bemba people, of the practices called "Ichisungu" and "Ndembo" prior to such a marriage, and if so, information on how those practices are conducted, including the persons who conduct them (April 2005), 13 April 2005, ZMB43484.E, available at: [accessed 17 January 2018]
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Specific information on forced marriages among the Bemba people could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate. However, various sources state that, while the legal age for marriage is 21 for both men and women in Zambia (Population Council Aug. 2004), early and forced marriages are widespread in this country (ibid.; The Post 11 Nov. 2004; Franciscans International 15 Oct. 2003; News From Africa Mar. 2002; The Center for Public Education and Information on Polygamy 26 Nov. 2002).

According to Population Council, about 8 percent of Zambian girls are married by age 15 (Population Council Aug. 2004), and 42 per cent are married by age 18 (ibid.; ibid. 2004). Sources explained that by forcing girls into early marriages, families act out of desperation to seek a "bride price" (Franciscans International 15 Oct. 2003; The Center for Public Education and Information on Polygamy 26 Nov. 2002; see also The Post 11 Nov. 2004). However, in many cases, this practice has a number of consequences, including the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS among girls (Population Council 2004; ibid. Aug. 2004).

Describing the problems to which Zambian women are confronted, Lucy Muyoyeta, wrote the following in Women, Gender and Development:

One of the main challenges facing the Zambian woman is the dual legal system, which recognises customary and statutory legal regimes. Although customary law varies from ethnic group to ethnic group, it generally tends to discriminate against women. Customary law allows polygamous marriages and entrenches the view of women as minors before the law

In addition, there is no constitutional requirement or government policy which stipulates that the provision of international instruments should be incorporated into domestic law (Women for Change 13 Feb. 2004).

Referring to Zambia, Country Reports 2004 stated that "customary law and women in a subordinate status with respect to property, inheritance and marriage, despite constitutional and legal protections (28 Feb. 2005, Sec. 5). The same source explained that presiding judges in local courts "have substantial power to invoke customary law and render judgments" regarding matters such as marriage and divorce (Country Reports 2004 28 Feb. 2005, sect. 2005, Sec. 5). However, the US Department of State report stated that, on 17 August 2004, the parents of 20 girls, aged between 13 and 16, who had been removed from school and forced into marriages, were fined to 30,000 (US $ 6) by the a local court in Mufumbwe district (ibid.).

Information on "Ichisungu" and "Ndembo" as practices performed prior to a forced marriage could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate. However, some sources point out the existence, among the Bemba people of Zambia, of a practice called "Chisungu," also known as "Kisungu" (German Anthropology Online 2003; MSU Museum 15 Nov. 2003; Growing Up Sexually Sept. 2004). The practice refers to a girl's puberty rite (ibid.), a girl's initiation (German Anthropology Online 2003) or a girls' ceremony (MSU Museum 15 Nov. 2003). The Minnesota State University Museum (MSU Museum) Website states that the "Chisungu" ceremony starts when girls go into puberty (ibid.). The same source explains that "when the girls' breasts start to develop they are put into a hut for six weeks to three months to undergo training in cooking, hostessing, being a mother, and gardening" (ibid.).

According to the African Sociological Review, initiations ceremonies are prevalent among most Zambian ethnic groups, including the Bemba (2003). The same source explained that, among Bemba people, a girl's initiation starts with her first menstruation (African Sociological Review 2003). Citing the results of a study that focussed on puberty rites for girls in Zambia, the African Sociological Review reported that the topics emphasised during the initiation include "personal hygiene, taking care of the family, sexual satisfaction of the husband, respect and sticking to one partner and, finally avoiding sex before and outside marriage" (ibid.). The African Sociological Review also explained that while many girls are initiated by a member of their immediate or extended family, people outside the family are increasingly being accepted as initiators as long as the person is "married, experienced, mature, respectable, secretive, faithful, has or has had children of her own and she herself has been initiated" (ibid.).

Among the Bemba people, the responsibility of teaching girls "good manners, hygiene and [staying] away from boys lies with traditional counsellors known as "Bana Chimbusa" (Our Right/Write 1 Feb. 2003; see also The Times of Zambia 15 Apr. 2003). The Times of Zambia explained that those "Bana Chimbusa" are "supposed to be 40-45 years old and able to inculcate' traditional norms of marriage into their clients" (15 Apr. 2003). However, according to The Times of Zambia, in towns and cities, "such session have been commercialised to an extent where under-age women at a fee are called in to offer traditional tuition [and] this turns out to be a hypocritical paradox because the same persons at the centre of cultural erosion cannot successfully uphold old virtues" (15 Apr. 2003).

In addition, Sister Namibia revealed that in Zambia, "traditional marriage counsellors have been using inhuman practices to teach women 'acceptable' behaviour required from a married woman" (1 June 2003). The same source explained that, in accordance with Zambian traditional custom, "parents allowed marriage counsellors during initiation ceremonies to pinch the thighs of their 'naughty' daughters to teach girls how to be submissive to their husbands when they married" (Sister Namibia 1 June 2003). On 3 March 2003, two traditional marriage counsellors were reportedly sentenced to 10 months in prison with hard labour by a Lusaka magistrate for "pinching the thighs and private parts 18-year-old housewife" (ibid.).

Regarding the term "Ndembo," sources refer to it as an ethnic group that lives in the North-Western province of Zambia (African Sociological Review 2003), as one of the dialects of Zambia (Ethnologue n.d.) or as a city in Zambia (Falling Rain Genomics 2004).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of additional sources consulted in researching this Information Request.


African Sociological Review. 2003. Vol. 7, No. 1. Augustus K. Kapungwe. "Traditional Cultural Practices of Imparting Sex Education and The Fight Against HIV/AIDS: The Case of Initiation Ceremonies for Girls in Zambia." [Accessed 11 Apr. 2005]

The Center for Public Education and Information on Polygamy. 26 November 2002. Basildon Peta. "Sale of Child Brides Dooms Zambia to Aids Disaster." [Accessed 11 Apr. 2005]

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2004. 28 February 2005. US Department State. Washington, D.C. [Accessed 11 Apr. 2005]

Ethnologue. N.d. "Languages of Zambia." [Accessed 11 Apr. 2005]

Falling Rain Genomics. 2004. "Places in Zambia That Start With Nd."

Franciscans International. 15 October 2003. Mobilizing the Franciscan Family to Combat Human Trafficking: Voices of Grassroots Franciscans from India, Italy Lebanon and Zambia Give Testimonies. [Accessed 11 Apr. 2005]

Germany Anthropoloy Online [Frankfurt]. 2003. Catoline Ausserer. "Menstruation and Female Initiation Rites." [Accessed 8 Apr. 2005]

Growing Up Sexually [Berlin]. September 2004. D.F Janssen. Vol 1. "Bemba (Northern Zambia)." [Accessed 31 Mar. 2005]

Minnesota State University Museum (MSU Museum). 15 November 2003. "Bemba" [Accessed 8 Apr. 2005]

News From Africa. March 2002. "Zambia: Government, NGO, Work to Change Education." [Accessed 11 Apr. 2005]

Population Council. 2004. The Implications of Early Marriage for HIV/AIDS Policy. [Accessed 11 Apr. 2005]
_____. August 2004. "Zambia: Child Marriage Briefing." [Accessed 11 Apr. 2005]

Our Right/Write [Lusaka]. 1 February 2003. Lindwe Nkutha and Thenjiwe Mtintso. "Gender, Culture, Religion and HIV/AIDS." [Accessed 11 Apr. 2005]

The Post [Lusaka]. 11 November 2004. Jonathan Mukuka. "Nakonde Girl, 14 Forced Into Marriage." (Dialog/AllAfrica)

Sister Namibia. 1 June 2003. Vol. 15. Gideon Thole. "A Turning Point on Customs (In Zambia)." (Dialog)

The Time of Zambia [Lusaka]. 15 April 2003. "Cultural Norms Eroded By Modernisation." (Dialog/Africa News)

Women for Change. Lucy Muyoyeta. 13 February 2004. Women, Gender and Development. [Accessed 11 Apr. 2005]

Additional Sources Consulted

Women for Change and the Non-Governmental Organisation's Co-Coordinating Council (NGOCC) did not respond to information requests within time constraints.

Publications: Africa Confidential, Africa Research Bulletin, Jeune Afrique/L'Intelligent, Resource Centre country file.

Websites, including: AllAfrica, Amnesty International (AI), European Country of Origin Information Network (ECOI), Human Rights Watch (HRW), Women's Human Rights Resources, Women Living Under Muslim Law.

Copyright notice: This document is published with the permission of the copyright holder and producer Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). The original version of this document may be found on the offical website of the IRB at Documents earlier than 2003 may be found only on Refworld.

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