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Journal for the Study of Religion

versión On-line ISSN 2413-3027
versión impresa ISSN 1011-7601

J. Study Relig. vol.30 no.2 Pretoria  2017 



Reconstructing the Distorted Image of Women as Reproductive Labour on the Copperbelt Mines in Zambia (1920-1954)



Lilian Cheelo Siwila1

School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.




The paper discusses the conceptualising of the presence of women in the Copperbelt mine compound in Zambia during the period 1920 -1954. Like many other mining companies across Southern Africa, The British South African Company which owned the mining rights on the Copperbelt imposed certain restrictions on women who came to the copperbelt province. Initially mine owners did not favour the idea of allowing women to live in the mine compound for the fact that women were seen as a distraction to production in the mines. The outcome of this decision was that as time went by most of the men left their jobs to return to the villages to be with their spouses. Those who were single took advantage of the neighbouring villages during weekends and stayed on with their girlfriends and sometimes only returned back for work later in the week. This affected production in the mines and made the mine bosses to propose rules on how to incorporate women in the mine compounds. The aim of this study is to demonstrate how patriarchy played an important role in excluding women from participating in the economic development that took place on the copperbelt during that period. The paper further highlights ways in which the colonial government displayed some ambiguities in the exclusion and inclusion of women in the economic development of the copperbelt mines. The article will also show how labour markets exploited women's rights to participate in the economic development in the copperbelt and how when access was granted women's productive and reproductive labour was used as a form of economic drive. The paper further argues that when it comes to women' s bodies, throughout history, religion has played an important role in defiling women' s bodies. It is this negative perception that was also perceived in the mining company in the copperbelt during the period under study. While women were seen as a threat to economic development, their presence in the copperbelt also played a significant role in the economic development of the copperbelt mining companies. Therefore, women' s contribution during the foundation of modern African life in Zambia needs to be acknowledged in our discussion of the development of the copperbelt mines.

Keywords: British South African Company, Copperbelt mines, women. Women' s bodies, production and reproduction, Religion, labour market.




A historical study of gender during colonial era will show that although colonial masters and missionaries may not have used the word gender in their debates on women, gender differences still played a significant role in the way in which these colonial masters and missionaries perceived the position of women in society. A critical analysis of the history of colonialism in Africa reviews that African women suffered double oppression during this period. Firstly, women suffered the patriarchal oppression derived from their African cultures; second, the western patriarchal colonial system oppressed them further. The oppression faced by African women during this era has contributed to how women who leave their homestead in the rural area to go to the city to seek economic stability are viewed by society even today.

In the Zambian context, the history of industrial development that took place on the Copperbelt province in the 1900s presents an ambiguous position in the way in which women were perceived by both colonial masters and the missionaries. Most of the literature present a negative perception of women in the urban city during this period. What normally comes out is what Hodgson and McCurdy 2001 call 'the wicked' woman phenomenon. One who is a 'vagabond', 'a prostitute', 'wayward', 'unruly', 'indecent', and 'immoral' (Hodgson & Mc Curdy 2001:1). Interestingly the wicked woman phenomenon that was pronounced during this era continue to be reflected on women even in the present context. In most of the Zambian villages the dominant discourse for unskilled women who leave the village to go to the city to look for employment especially without the accompaniment of a husband remain negative. These women are defined as wicked with a mind-set that the only work they would be able to perform in the city is what was called prostitution. Hence they are viewed as irresponsible citizens.


British South Africa Company and the Migration of Women into the Copperbelt Province

A brief background of the colonial era in Zambia shows that since the advent of colonialism, Zambia has undergone social, economic, political and religious transition. The country moved from a traditional self-sustaining agriculture community to a strong capitalist economic system that depended on copper. Zambian communities progressed from tribal oriented type of leadership to the amalgamation of different ethnic groups under the umbrella of one colonial control. The merger of ethnic groups came as a result of movements from the rural areas into the urban cities where people from different ethnic groups came together and engaged in paid labour. Although European contact with what is now called Zambia date from as early as 15 th century with the coming of the Portuguese traders, the colonial rule had its effect on the country around the 19th century when European explorers, missionaries, visionaries and those on adventure came to the country now called Zambia (Ndulo & Kent 1996:257). From a Christian perspective, David Livingstone stands out as a first prominent figure that visited the country during the 19th century in an attempt to open a way for Christianity in central Africa. And from an economic perspective the Charter in incorporation with the British South African company and according it broad monetary and administrative opportunity opened doors for economic development in the country. This move was influenced by figures such as John Cecil Rhodes who was the then ruler and empire of gold and diamond mines in South Africa (Ndulo & Kent 1996:58)2. The British South African Company became the first mining company to invest on the Copperbelt province of Zambia. During this period, the Copperbelt province became the hub for economic development and attracted many men to migrate from rural areas to go and work in the mines. At first the mobility attracted only men but as time went women too began to leave the villages heading to the copperbelt to seek for employment.


Factors that Led to the Migration of Women to the Copperbelt

As at the beginning of the Great Depression it was difficult to find any group of people in Zambia who were not enormously dependent on the market economy. During this period, most of the Zambians begun to earn cash income. This meant migrating long distance to seek for work as wage laborers in industries such as the mines in the copperbelt and South Africa. Within this economic awakening, scholars have argued that at the end of the great depression in 1934-1935 there was a growing desire for native women to seek for status that is more independent. This also led to the migration of women into the city especially on the copperbelt province. Therefore, we cannot understand the current Zambian society in relation to women migration into the city unless we closely look at the history of the foundation of modern life in the country. This is because during this time the economic market began to control both men and women's desire for this new life. Parpart (1994) argues that Perhaps another outstanding effect of the men and women going off to the Copperbelt is the new independence and self-assertiveness of the young women, without going so far as to call it a definite movement, because it is in no way organized, but just simply growing up almost unnoticed.... Women's rights are beginning to assert themselves.

Despite this growing interest on women to leave their homesteads and migrate into the city, we see a lot of resistance on women' s movements from both the colonial government and the traditional leaders through the indirect rule. The refusal of women to migrate into the copperbelt was associated with a number of reasons ranging from gender, cultural and economic factors. At the same time, this paper also reveals ambiguities associated to the decisions made by both missionaries and colonisers in response to the issue of women migrating to the copperbelt. For instance, at one point women's presence was acknowledged by the mine authorities as an incentive for male mine workers who had to rely on women' s domestic and sexual services. According to mine authorities, this helped to boost production as it prevented men from going back to the villages more often. Chauncey Jr. (1981) observes that the decision to allow the women in the mine compounds also came as a result of competition for mass production within the mining sector. Chauncey (1981) further states that by the 1920s copper mining companies in Northern Rhodesia were faced with a challenge of labour migration in the neighbouring countries where conditions were better than those of their homeland. This challenge forced the mining company to look for incentives that would attract the mineworkers, and one suggestion was to allow women to come and live in the mine compounds. On the other hand, even when these women were allowed to stay in the mine compounds, there were still some strict rules to follow.

The permission for women to stay in the mine compounds came with conditions. One of which was that all women residing in the mine compounds were to be under the control of a male. This means women needed to be married to a miner in order to qualify to live in the mine compounds. While single women were to register their presence to the mine authority. The aim was to help control their movements in the mine compound. Single women who wished to stay in the mine compounds could also take on temporal marriages as encouraged by the mine authority. How long these temporal marriage arrangements lasted was not an issue as long as all women were under the control of a man. Parpart states that those women who wished to register their marriage were given a copper bracelet called (chingolongolo) to wear as a sign that they are married to mine workers (1994:257). Therefore Chauncey would argue that the decision to permit women in the mines was made explicitly for the sexual, domestic and other services women provided as non-monetary inducements for men to work in the Copperbelt despite the low wages (1981:137).

On the other hand, the colonial government, traditional leaders and missionaries were against the influx of women into the Copperbelt especially single women as these were seen as a threat to what was termed as 'traditional moral code' of society due to the fact that they were not under male control. As the influx of women coming to the Copperbelt from the rural areas increased, the mine authority became more and more threatened by the presence of women especially single women in the compounds. This led to the introduction of stricter rules for women entering the Copperbelt province. In the rural areas, the chiefs introduced the penal code of indirect rule that saw the arrest of any woman who attempted to enter the mining towns without a warrant/permission. Chiefs worked with the colonial government to also arrest any driver found carrying women going into the copperbelt. Roadblocks were introduced in the key entry points into the city. This kind of domesticating of women by the colonial government simply reinforced African cultural oppression of women that was already dominant in most African societies. This further complicated the idea of using women's domestic labour as it contradicted with the restrictions put upon women's mobility.


Women as Reproductive Labour a Tool for Economic Productivity

Scholars such as Chauncey 1981 Hansen 1984, and Parpart 1994, are among the few who have provided extensive literature on the experiences of women on the Copperbelt mine towns as reproductive labour. When the decision to allow women to move from rural areas to urban city was enacted the women were already seen as coming to provide services to male mineworkers, other than coming as workers who will contribute to the industrial labour market by working in the mines. This is because mine work was seen as a man' s job. This meant that women' s labour be it productive or reproductive was placed under the company' s domains as unpaid labour that would help increase productivity output on the mines. Chauncey states that the idea of relocating women's reproductive labour from the rural to urban areas under the influence of mining companies as controlled unpaid labour (own words) was a great benefit to the company. He further comments that:

From the perspective of capital, women's labour was reproductive that is, it provided for maintenance of mine employees. But from the perspective of women, such gender-specific labour tasks such as the provision of domestic and sexual services and the production and exchange of commodities such as beer and vegetables represented productive labour (1981:136).

Although Chauncey seems to view this kind of service with a positive approach, writing from a feminist standpoint, I argue that the mine employers also exploited women' s labour. At a time of great depression and economic migration when everyone was trekking to the city for economic benefit, women were still perceived as domestic labour providers who either needed to remain in the confines of the home in the village or be used as domestic labour in the city. The concept of viewing women as reproductive labour meant commodification of women's labour abilities and bodies. The kind of approach adopted by the mine bosses has a strong influence to the Victorian model of housewife which was also very common in their own context during that period. Both sematic religions and secular societies have in many ways been found quilt of upholding the Victorian model of perceiving women. At the same time the model found a home in the African cultural context which also saw women as home makers and 'service providers for the male'.

Besides viewing women as objects for economic productivity mine bosses also reinforced mechanisms that controlled women through social surveillance. This was done through controlling their migration into the city and controlling their movements while they were in the city. Women surveillance was a combined effort with the missionaries who also used their own biblical ideology of a woman' s position in society in their judgement. According to parpart (1994), missionaries saw single women as sinners who indulged in adultery. To them, 'the evils of town life' was a danger to women's lives. Therefore, women were better off remaining in the village where they would not be influenced by the city life. What is interesting with such kind of approach is that western women were already in the city and little is said about their presence or being influenced by the dangers of city life. A feminist reading of such kind of views depicts a colonial concept of how an African woman was viewed during the colonial era.

Besides the missionaries and mine employers, traditional leaders too through indirect rule controlled women's movement into the city. These traditional leaders worked with the colonial government to re-enforce strict rules on women's movements. Parpart states that the traditional leaders made efforts to prevent women from leaving the rural areas through the border posts that were created between the rural and urban areas. Women who were coming to the city needed to get permission from their traditional leaders and those who were caught travelling without boarding passes obtained from the traditional leaders were repatriated back to the village (1994:271). Border controls that were set up by the colonial government also became points of gender discrimination and women oppression. Any overstepping of these rules was seen as threatening the moral conduct of the society and the offender was fined to the point of imprisonment3. Jane Parpart describes how,

... in the late 1930s and early 1940s these courts encouraged the mine police to search the compounds for single women who had come to town without permission from their chiefs. They had to pay 10 pounds fines and were repatriated. If a woman admitted having committed adultery, she was fined 5 pounds and declared immoral she could not claim damages from the man. A woman who had married three different men was viewed as a prostitute and banned from the Copperbelt (1994:5).

According to Polinska, for centuries the male gaze dominated women's bodies, with no counter response from women themselves. Women were the objects of men's voyeurism (2000:53). Chauncey (1981) further obverses that despite all these restrictions, what is interesting to see is the way in which at one point these mine authorities ignored the call to stop these single women from coming into the cities from the villages.

When discussing issues relating to women' s bodies we should always remind ourselves that both religion and theology are not innocent of the negative conception on women and their bodies. Church fathers used their patriarchal powers to refrain women from full participation in the activities of the church mainly because of who they are and not what they are (Watson 2001). Therefore, it is evident to state that the prohibition of women in the copperbelt from participating in the economic development of the province had more to do with women' s bodies that were under surveillance by the male powers. Isherwood argues that early fathers tried to describe ways in which women could behave as a way of controlling them. They made it a point that a woman' s world was very confined and many women were advised to remain indoors. Male patriarchs prescribed how they ate, slept, bathed, and spoke (2000:27).

The other point that this study addresses on the negative conception of women during this period was on the term used to describe women. One of the gender constructs that was commonly used to oppress single women who left their homestead to go to the copperbelt mine towns to seek for economic security was prostitutes. The reason for being called prostitutes was mainly because these women were associated with the selling of their sex for money. Hodgson and McCurdy talking about the colonial perception of prostitution state that for the colonial government prostitution was a serious term that was dehumanising to women, it created complicated alliances and antagonisms between husbands, fathers, lovers and the state officials who were concerned about controlling women's sexuality (2001:10). Mutesi 1976 argues that the single women who came to the copperbelt were not the good wives, as they were supposed to be. Contesting further Polinska states that:

... the socially accepted image of a 'good' woman in the Middle Ages was an image of a fully clothed woman. A fifteenth-century depiction of a virtuous woman contrasts her with a prostitute. The prostitute is partially unclothed, her breasts visible and her body flaming with lustful desire; the good woman is a bloodless creature, 'pure and chaste and never disturbed by the unruly prompting of sexual desire. The good woman was therefore a safe woman whose sexual body was carefully hidden and who subdued her sexual needs' (2000:52).

This kind of conceptualisation of women stated by Polinska suits the reflection given by the mine bosses and missionaries on an African woman who left the city to come to the copperbelt. For them prostitutes were perceived through physical appearance. At the same time leaving the village to go and work in the city was also viewed as being a prostitute. A gender analysis of this kind of perception would raise questions on issues around work. To say that women came to the city to be prostitutes without considering other kinds of work that they were involved in creates a kind of negative perception on women as people who were simply focused on selling their bodies. Hodgson and McCurdy contend that wickedness can also be described as a discourse of primary masculine power that seeks to control or oppress women by stigmatizing certain actions whether normative or unconventional (2001:10).

The naming of women as prostitutes or wicked while using their reproductive labour as social reproduction as was the case on the copperbelt during the colonial era continues to be reflected in the current market system. A number of companies worldwide have used women's bodies through media to advertise and promote their products just as the case was during this era where the global economic labour markets used women' s bodies to improve production and attract capital while presenting them as endangering species to society. This created an ambiguity in the way in which mine bosses viewed women.

Finally, the way in which domestic labour was viewed did not locate women as part of the industrial production on the copperbelt. When looking at the discourses on women's reproductive labour Luxton states that domestic labour is one of the central labour processes of industrialism. This particular and indispensable labour converts the wages of the paid workers into the means of subsistence for the entire household and replenishes the labour power of household members so that it can be resold (1980:14). In the Copperbelt mining company the presence of domestic labour provided by women helped to boost production in the mines. A gender perspective on domestic labour will show that labour markets need to be aware of the fact that social reproduction is the backbone of economic production; therefore, the two cannot be separated. Social reproduction can be associated with activities, attitudes, responsibilities and relationships directly related with the maintenance of life on a daily basis4. Therefore, what most African women provide in the homes that needs to be appreciated is social reproduction hence, Ferguson (2008) questions, what it is about our labouring bodies that opens up the possibility in capitalism inevitability. The controlling and domesticating of women's bodies by the capital systems and patriarchy also carries some form of power and competition on the market ladder. This is reflected in the way in which copperbelt mine bosses responded to the call to bring women into the compounds after the report of men migrating to other mines that had better conditions for families.

Another influencing factors to the way in which men perceive women' s bodies is power. Poling argues that social power inequalities become occasions for the abuse of power. Those who are powerful can organise societies in such a way that those who are vulnerable are denied the full resources that life has to offer (1991:29). This is a clear case with women on the copperbelt who found themselves on the side of the powerless hence denied opportunities to access resources in the city. Isherwood and Stuart argue that Christian history show us the extent to which power is exerted over female bodies in the name of divine truth (1998:11). Throughout religion's history, debates over the female body continued to be deliberated by patriarchal systems that viewed women as a danger and a pollution. Power to control is one of the deadly patriarchal weapons that was used by the mine bosses, the traditional leaders and missionaries of this era. Lisa Isherwood argues that if we are in doubt about symbolic power... we only have to cast a glance at British laws that also controlled the Zambian government during this period (own words). According to these laws in terms of adultery only penetration by penis made a woman adulteress (1998:27). Following the way in which the mine authority treated women, it becomes evident to conclude that even though these women could be sexually abused in different ways such as exposing their bodies as long as there was no penetration there would be no case of adultery. Another contradiction in the enacting of the regulations in the mines is that it was the same women who were not needed in the city who were later called to stay in the mine compound and offer domestic services to the men so that production can improve. A radical feminist approach to this kind of approach could be an interpretation that women were being raped by the system that saw their bodies as a space for economic production. Patriarchy when it presents itself on the global market also carries along socio-economic, cultural and religious location of women' s bodies. Bula asserts that research in Africa has shown that injustices emanating from gender inequalities are rooted in patriarchy and sexism and are central driving forces in the differential impacts of the economy on men and women She further argues that contextual reality point to situations in which women' s perspective and experiences, women's labour and their bodies are often devalued and exploited by patriarchal ideologies of domination and control (2014:112).

Lastly the effects of globalisation to women's social reproduction and how the woman' s body continues to be used as a sight for productivity in capitalist economies continue to be reflected in International organisations such as World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organisation who have in some ways benefited from this trend. For example, the feminisation of poverty and HIV and AIDS carry along some aspects of feminine vulnerability. Women are seen as the most affected with poverty yet they are also in the forefront to eradicate poverty in their households through social production. Just like in the copper mining industry of Zambia where women despite being the key figures in the production were marginalised, globalisation continue to increase the peripherization of women on the global market.


Religion and Women's Liberation

Religion on its own has been very slow to address many of the issues around women' s productive and reproductive labour. The question then is whether religion is capable of lifting the negative injunctions against the female body as was reflected in the Copperbelt during the colonial era5. The role of liberation theology is to challenge the church to respond positively to issues of oppression by siding with the oppressed. This however is not always the case especially on issues relating to women, instead we see religion taking the position of the oppressor especially on matters relating to women' s sexuality. For example during the period under study missionaries on the copperbelt province took a very negative position on single women. They were in the forefront to condemn single women who entered the copperbelt in search for economic development and advocated for the repatriation of any woman who tried to enter the copperbelt to seek for self-empowerment. In this article I propose that a feminist liberation theology that take into account women's liberation from all forms of oppression must be encouraged especially when seeking the liberation of women from economic oppression. Hence the need for African women theologians to begin engaging in a dialogue on African feminist liberation theology an appropriate theory to address the plight of women in the economic domains that are saturated by male figures.

On the other hand we also see the ambivalence in the way in which the female body was constructed by the colonial government both as a sight of struggle at the same time as a centre for economic productivity. Mary Douglas argues that the body often becomes the symbol of the social and religious structures to which it belongs and anxieties of society are played out on the human body6, as was the case in the copperbelt province during the colonial era. Polinska a key Jewish feminist scholar states that, religion is one of the patriarchal structures that has objectified women and denigrated their bodies, this is seen in the ambivalence displayed by the church fathers (2000:48).



The history of women in the Copperbelt mine towns has attracted a number of research. Most of this research focus on how women lived out their lives as reproductive labour, the concept and the role that colonial government played in addressing African marriages. In this article l have tried to push the agenda further by focusing on the experiences of these women in their offering of domestic labour as part of social economic reproduction for the benefit of the British South African Mining Company. The article has shown how women's presence on the Copperbelt although seen as an incentive for women by other scholars was also a kind of sexual abuse. This is seen from the way in which mine authority controlled women' s bodies. From a religious perspective, l conclude this article proposing for a need to address issues affecting women using African feminist liberation theory. The article has also reviewed that throughout human history be it in religious or secular circles, the woman' s body has always been viewed with ambivalence. Therefore, there is need to read the history of women during colonialism through liberation sensitive lens. At the same time the use of women as reproduction assets in the capital economic systems also need to be analysed and critiqued using gender sensitive lens for the liberation of women.



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1 Prof. Lilian Cheelo Siwila is a lecturer in the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics. She is currently the Programme leader for Systematic Theology. She has also worked with a number of ecumenical bodies in the field of Gender, Theology and Culture holding various offices. She is a member of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, CHART, Ujamaa and AARS. Her research interests include Gender and Culture, Sexual and reproductive health and its interface with Theology and social and economic trends in contemporary theologies.
2 For a more detailed account on the history of the role of British South African Company in Zambia see also Peter Slinn. Commercial Concessions and Politics during the Colonial Period: The Role of the British South Africa Company in Northern Rhodesia 1890-1964, African Affairs, Vol. 70, No. 281 (Oct., 1971), pp. 365-384 URL:
3 See Parpart, 'Where is Your Mother' (1994).
4 For more information on feminism and social reproduction see. Kate Bezanson and Meg Luxton (eds.) Social Reproduction: Feminist Political Economy Challenges Neo-Liberalism, Quebec: Mc Gill- Queen' s University 2006.
5 For more information see Althaus-Reid and Isherwood, Introduction: Slicing Women's Bodies (2008).
6 Mary Douglas (2002). Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Pollution and Taboo. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.

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