Mothers’ Rights: Women, the Law and culture when obtaining National Registration Cards (NRCs) in Zambia

E. Munshya, LLM, M.Div.

There have been reports that single mothers are having a hard time obtaining National Registration Cards (NRCs) for their children due to the demands by some registration officers for details of the father of those children before they are issued NRCs. The Non-Governmental Organisation Coordinating Council (NGOCC) has rightly observed that such demands by some registration officers are not only illegal but also disenfranchise a generation of voters. While it is true that it is only a few registration officers guilty of these illegalities, I believe that even if we had one case, it would still be one case too many. In modern Zambia, there should be no reason why mothers should be denied to register their children simply because they do not or cannot supply the details of the father of those children.

Edith Nawakwi
Edith Nawakwi

I do believe that some registration officers could have fundamentally misunderstood our current laws. According to our current laws, both the mother and the father are equal before the law as far as the family is concerned. Women are no longer legally subservient to men. As such, the father is not legally more of a parent than a mother is. Any woman who is a mother or guardian of a child has all the rights that a man who is father has over that child. These rights include the ability to obtain NRCs for their children. As such, for NRC officers to demand that a mother produces a letter or proof of paternal parentage goes against the current law.

According to the ruling of Lewanika and others v. Chiluba, a National Registration Card does not confer Zambian citizenship. The card merely registers Zambian citizenship. That being the case, when interpreting who and how should one obtain an NRC we must go to the constitution and find out how one acquires citizenship. Children born of a Zambian father or mother become citizens of our republic. In the case of women, it really does not matter the citizenship of the man who made them pregnant. A Zambian woman, who bears a child fathered by a Malawian, transmits Zambian citizenship to that child. When the time comes for the registration of that child, the mother could go to the NRC officers, swear an affidavit and have that child obtain their NRC.

Perhaps the most significant case that dealt with this issue is Nawakwi v. Attorney General (1991). Let me restate some facts. Ms. Nawakwi applied for the renewal of her passport. That passport had endorsed in it the names of her two children born out of wedlock. When she had applied for this original passport, the NRC officials made her swear affidavits whose effects were to make her appear like a secondary factor with regard to her legal rights. At the time of renewing that passport, the NRC officers asked her to produce written consent from the fathers of the children and swear more affidavits to that effect. She refused and commenced legal proceedings.

The ruling of Mr. Justice Claver Musumali was clear. Zambian law should recognise single parent headed families. The demand by the Passport Office for a father’s consent was illegal and Ms. Nawakwi did not need permission from the biological father of these children to put them in her passport. Justice Musumali did not have choice words for the Zambian government. He stated:

It is not at all justified … for a father to treat himself or to be treated by the institutions of society to be more entitled to the affairs of his child/ren than the mother of that child or those children.

Musumali then rightly declared, “the mother is as much an authority over the affairs of her child/ren as the father is.” These words from the Nawakwi case are powerful to shatter any doubts from a few NRC officers who are blocking women from obtaining NRCs.

Munshya wa Munshya
Munshya wa Munshya

I must then add another dimension to this discussion. Zambian peoples are quite diverse. Patrilineal tribes in Zambia derive inheritance and the family tree through the father. Matrilineal tribes, on the other hand, derive inheritance and the family tree through the mother. With such diversity, it is ridiculous for NRC officials to insist on the identity of fathers only at the expense of mothers. To be clear, matrilineal tribes do not have family names, in the same way, as patrilineal tribes do. In patrilineal tribes the practice is that all children are given the last name of the father and that name becomes the family name or the surname, as the case may be. It is this last name through which “patrilineals” can know their clan and their family tree. In matrilineal tribes, this is not the case as the last name of a person has very little to do with the clan or the family tree to which that individual should belong. For example, patrilineal families from the East could sustain the last name of “Jere” derived from the father. That Jere name in fact could go on to tell you the clan of the person. It is not so among “matrilineals”, since you cannot tell someone’s family tree simply by the last name. The family tree and clan are derived from the mother. So in Luapula, there is no such thing as “Munshya” being a clan or family name, it is simply a name. For one to figure out a clan, they must ask the mother of Munshya. A last name in Luapula doesn’t mean as much as it does among patrilineal tribes. When obtaining NRCs, therefore, there is likely to be confusion when a mother from a matrilineal tribe shows up with her children all bearing differing “surnames”, even if they have the same biological father. This could be bewildering to NRC officials, but it shouldn’t. It is cultural reality for most of our people.

I appeal to all of our citizens, far and wide, women as well as men, to do the right thing and register their Zambian children freely and without fear. To the great women of our country, feel free to exercise the liberties afforded by your sacred citizenship to transmit it to your children without recourse to the men who made you pregnant. To the NRC officials, keep doing a good job, but for those officers who are unsure of the law, read Nawakwi again and let the women obtain NRCs for their children.

President Lungu greets Edith Nawakwi at an SDA event
President Lungu greets Edith Nawakwi

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