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I Was Strongly Opposed as a Woman in Church Leadership, Former Official in Zambia Recounts

Rev. Dr. Kabonde Peggy Mulambya

The former Secretary General of the United Church of Zambia, a union of Churches in the Southern African nation has narrated her experience at the helm of Church leadership in the country, recalling that she always faced opposition on the basis of her gender.

In her address during the All African Council of Churches (AACC) virtual event to mark the International Women’s Day (IWD), Rev. Dr. Kabonde Peggy Mulambya said that it is never easy for a woman working in a male-dominated church leadership in Africa.

“To date, women leadership in some churches in Africa is not valued. Churches are still operating as though they were in the first century,” said Rev. Mulambya in a message that was shared with ACI Africa.

According to the former church leader, the lack of adequate female representation and highly qualified women leaders have been taken for granted.

“Our societies are more comfortable and prefer having men as leaders to women. Even when a woman is qualified and is proven responsible for the job, such as in my case as the first woman general secretary of the United Church of Zambia, gender discrimination is still the norm,” she said.

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Rev. Mulambya said that her work in her position at the United Church of Zambia was to ensure that women were well represented in church leadership, an endeavor for which she says she faced most opposition.

“My experience as a General Secretary was to work on this though I had strong opposition. I was dealing with human beings who were not angels,” the former church leader recounted during the March 8 virtual event.

Rev. Mulambya was invited to share her experiences from working in a male-dominated religious space. In her presentation, she shared, widely, on the challenges, persistent barriers and opportunities with regard to women’s full and effective participation in such environments.

Held under the theme, “Women in Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a Covid-19 World”, the virtual event brought together faith-based leaders at AACC for consultation on the topic, “the Role of Religion in Enhancing Women’s Full Participation in Leadership, and Eliminating all Forms of Gender-based Violence in a COVID-19 World.”

Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, AACC is a fellowship of 193 member entities comprising Churches, National Councils of Churches (NCCs), theological and lay training institutions and other Christian organizations in 42 African countries.

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Some of the National Christian Councils belonging to AACC of which the Catholic Church is a member are the Botswana Council of Churches, Liberia Council of Churches, Christian Council of Lesotho, and the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK), among others.

Organizers of the March 8 event noted that although efforts have been made to close gender gaps, leadership positions in Africa are still dominated by men in religious, political and economic spheres.

“Even when women have employment opportunities, patriarchal social norms and tradition in some societies dictate that a career be secondary to a woman's primary place as a housewife,” AACC leadership said in a statement that was shared with ACI Africa ahead of the March 8 event.

In the statement, the faith-based leaders added, “Although there are several biblical foundations for gender justice, some biblical texts, which subordinate women to man and forbid women from speaking in public, continue to be invoked to reinforce gender disparity in patriarchal societies where women do not lead men.”

In her address, Rev. Mulambya noted that since the union of the United Church of Zambia in 1965, there has only been one man after the other taking over as general secretary until in 2010, when she became the first ‘woman’ General Secretary of the church.

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“Even with the strides made, the church could not reconsider replacing me with a woman but reverted back to men,” she recalled.

The United Church of Zambia is part of AACC and was formed in 1965 as a result of the union of Church of Central Africa, Rhodesia (a mission work of the Church of Scotland), the Union Church of Copperbelt, the Copper belt, the Church of Barotseland and the Methodist church.

Rev. Mulambya also noted that the language used when there is a female leader is “unacceptable.”

“When something wrong happens, people will start affirming what tradition says about women,” she said, and added, “The statement that ‘we told you that women are like this’ always comes out. During my tenure of office, I experienced such kinds of statements, but I just strengthened myself.”

She also observed with regret that some women tend to abuse each other without realizing that socialization as a result of patriarchy is at play.

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When it comes to elections, she said, many women will not support or vote for their fellow women, but instead, would join other people to talk ill about their fellow women.

To protect women and girls in many parts of the world, she said, systems have to be critically examined and strengthened by using gender lenses.

“Women and girls should be conscientized on the importance of human dignity, womanhood, culture and religion and an absence of heterosexual male dominance so as to motivate increasing numbers of women in higher positions to accommodate other women,” Rev. Mulambya said.

She underscored the need to establish systems that will ensure that church politics, programs and legislation are equitable for both women and men. 

“To fully discharge these responsibilities, those involved in policy development and analysis should have an understanding of gender issues,” she went on to say referencing suggestions to improve participation of women in church leadership and to eliminate gender-based violence against women.

The former United Church of Zambia official also urged those in church authorities to examine the structures that oppress women and girls and replace them with those that are calling for equity and equality.

Women, if accorded the chance in leadership, she said, can turn the world into a better place to live in because of their God-given qualities.

“Women are visionary because they do not just think about themselves but more about other people. They are honest and sincere in most of the things they do and want to advance anything that they do. They are goal setters,” Rev. Mulambya said March 8.

She explained, “Given opportunities to lead in both church and secular, the world can be a better place to live in. Many female leaders are thoughtful of individual lives and also at a larger scale.”