Author: PSAf's Exectutive Director Lilian Kiefer, December 10 2015 - Traditional leaders are an important institution in the formulation of public opinion and internalisation of social change processes in Zambia. Traditional leaders such as chiefs and headmen equally play a critical role in fostering good governance and democracy by encouraging citizen participation. They must therefore be an integral part of various developmental processes. These processes must include all aspects of socioeconomic development including human rights and citizen engagement.

 In some cases however, development actors and other players have either left out traditional leaders, or included them in a superficial way when it comes to issues of human rights and addressing inequalities. In understanding that the causes and drivers of inequality and discrimination are rooted in the values and beliefs of our societies, one must acknowledge that solutions cannot be identified without engaging with the custodians of culture.

 Inequality and discrimination in access to and benefit from resources are some of the main factors that have fuelled poverty in Zambia. Wide inequalities lead to marginalisation of the poor, making them less able to advance themselves and enjoy their human rights. Acknowledging that all humans are equal in dignity and deserve equal opportunities, sustainable measures of addressing inequalities are targeted at the root of socialisation, challenging the deep-seated stereotypes that cause discrimination and marginalisation. This can only be possible if traditional leaders are effectively engaged as they are the custodians of our people and gate-keepers to the society.  Failure to meaningfully engage them in these programmes and interventions leads to superficial impact that does not stand the test of time.

While political advocacy for human rights is critical to ensure that legal and policy frameworks respond to the need for favourable environment for protection of human rights and addressing inequalities, it is equally important to target the people in order to mobilise their support in positively influencing the political sphere. One of the main challenges in the human rights movement is the lack of effective involvement of traditional leaders in advocating for equality and protecting and advocating for the rights of their people. A Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf) assessment in 2015 found that this situation is caused by a number of factors including limited understanding of human rights and limited appreciation of the role of traditional leaders in ending discrimination in their circles of influence.

 Effective people-mobilisation takes place when traditional leaders are actively involved in passing on the message. Traditional leaders will only engage effective mobilisation if they are adequately trained and prepared in various issues and topics under discussion. Over the years PSAf has learnt that this approach is effective in fostering positive change and development. This strategy has achieved positive results in addressing controversial issues such as gender-based violence, wife-inheritance, child marriages and unsafe abortion. PSAf is persuaded that if applied to broader issues of addressing inequalities and discrimination, this approach would achieve desired change.

 Currently, PSAf is implementing interventions targeted at traditional leaders to effectively engage them in addressing inequalities and effectively protect human rights. The PSAf interventions include Human Rights Trainings aimed at increase understanding and appreciation of human rights, and the role of traditional leaders in protecting human rights on sexual minorities. PSAf is also engaging Community Dialogues between chiefs and their headmen to create platforms where chiefs use their circles of influence to advance human rights issues.

 As part of the ongoing interventions, PSAf is also working on simplification of existing human rights information and translating the materials into local languages. These materials are used in trainings and as reference materials for the traditional leaders and communities as they continue to understand the issues in their communities finding the role they can play to foster positive change. Such interventions put traditional leaders at the driving seat of ending inequality

Lilian Kiefer is the Executive Director of Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf). For feedback, email: This article was first published in the Zambia Daily Mail and on  

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