Namibia's war on women

By Gwen Lister | February 19th, 2014
Murder and rape of women and girls on the rise in Namibia
Murder and rape of women and girls on the rise in Namibia

Violence against women and children in Namibia is reaching critical proportions. Of late there have been some particularly horrific incidences of what are unfortunately termed 'passion killings'. The usual public outcry follows each gruesome story. Calls for the reinstatement of the death penalty, a 'national state of emergency' and a return to religious education in schools are but some of the 'solutions' offered for this escalating social evil.

Shocking headlines spelling out the latest horrific attack are an almost weekly occurrence. Most recent was the panga killing of a woman in full view of her five-year-old daughter in Omusati region in northern Namibia. In the Kavango region too, a 63-year-old man was arrested for stabbing a young woman in the chest with a spear. In Katima Mulilo, Zambezi region, a two year-old-girl was raped and killed. Calmly and with an absence of remorse, a 24-year-old man, who was in court for stabbing and then virtually decapitating his girlfriend, admitted he had killed her because she threatened him over a son he had with another woman. And the list of bloody incidents goes on.

There is clearly a moral breakdown in Namibian society. This is manifest not only in the rape and murder of women and children, but also in rising levels of alcohol abuse and corruption. Yet there seems to be little social or political will to tackle the crisis.

While Namibia is said to be 95 per cent Christian, the churches appear to be hopeless and helpless in the face of the breakdown in the country's social fabric – with their voices seldom being heard.

Politicians, on the other hand, are all talk. At the opening of parliament recently, President Hifikepunye Pohamba made gender based violence (GBV) the focus of his speech, recommending that the criminal justice system deal forcefully with perpetrators. "I believe that our society needs to carry out a deep introspection and reflection in order to get to the root cause of such evil and cruel deeds. We need to look at ourselves as a nation and identify the causes of such destructive behaviour that has no respect and no regard for human life.”

He also called on parents “to teach our children from a very young age, the values of self-respect and respect for others. We must teach them to be law-abiding citizens with empathy and love for themselves and their fellow human beings. We must teach them that violence is not acceptable.”

But concrete proposals are few and far between.

Meanwhile, the National Council Women’s Caucus responded to the rising tide of violence by saying that the war against GBV could only be won if religion was reinstated in the education system. And Deputy Speaker Maggie Mensah called on the President to declare a state of emergency due to the recent brutal killings of women and children. "We did it during the drought and it worked. We can also do it in times of gender-based violence and it can work", she said. Quite how this would help was a question she did not answer.

There's also been plenty of righteous condemnation – as if that alone would bring the killings to an end. Labelling such men 'cowards', Prime Minister Have Geingob also called for 'isolation' and 'proper punishment' for men who committed such deeds, adding that men who killed women and young girls were ‘sick in their minds’.

But as the SWAPO party chief whip, Peter Katjavivi, said words alone are not enough to stop the killing. He expressed the need to 'revisit' the country's legal system and called on people to ensure "there are no hiding places for such characters". Others have called for the death penalty to be brought back but this is not a viable option as Namibia's inalienable Bill of Rights prohibits its reinstatement.

So as Namibians prepare to go to the polls in this election year, there are no obvious solutions – no clear and effective ways of stemming the tide of rapes and killings. Few seem to doubt that Namibia's moral fabric has been severely torn. How – or indeed whether – it can be repaired are questions for which the nation will have to find real answers soon. 


Well said Gwen! It’s time to

Well said Gwen! It’s time to make ourselves deliberately uncomfortable and open ourselves up to new thinking about how we are manifestly failing in our mission, given the empirical evidence of rising gender-based violence and how we can change tack and bring some new thinking to the table. This work remains seriously underfunded, supporting victims is often small-scale, uncoordinated and under the radar. Attitudes towards gender-based violence in many local communities remain deeply troubling and unchallenged by our gender movement and our constitutional, human-rights work. There is a powerful, persistent and malignant idea still out there in many communities that this violence is a marginal problem, confined to a small number of aberrant men. That it is just the problem that sometimes men “take it too far”. As gender activists we’ve let this happen to some extent. We’ve compartmentalised the problem, labelled it and boxed it into a marketable commodity for funding proposals to donors and governments. Sought support for our work from only a narrow constituency of benevolent “gender” backstoppers and been content not to think outside of the box. We’ve ghettoised this as a “women’s issue” and therefore been content to leave the leadership of the challenge to the women’s movement believing in the fallacy that it is a women’s problem. We’ve allocated just enough resources to women’s organisations to manage the dissent and pick up some of the pieces. We’ve patronised and marginalised the small number of men and men’s organisations who’ve taken up the challenge to gender-based violence, drip-feeding their work and just about keeping it on life support. The women’s movement has done a sterling job in making this a real issue but I feel that now we all need to work far harder at doing something about it. This cannot just be the task of the women’s movement. They need the whole of society to come on board. The first sea change that needs to happen is that we start to view gender-based violence as a men’s problem, which women suffer from. The resistance from some in the women’s movement to seeing resources put into work with men and boys has to be dealt with. They need assurances that such funding will not be a “diversion” of resources away from valuable work with women victims and survivors and advocacy that keeps the issue in national attention. Those who work with men and boys need to know that their work is valued and supported, that they can take it to scale. There is an ever-increasing number of men who are working alongside of women, learning from women, but working in parts of male culture where, historically, there has been very little work done. But we need a lot more men involved; we’re not even close to having a critical mass of men involved for our work on men’s violence against women to be transformative. We need adult men with power to feel responsible to deal with these issues but many of these men are turned off by our present strategies. The goal has to be to get men who do not abuse women and children to speak out against men who do. It may be sexist to say this but often men can say things that women cannot or men get listened to where women are not but it is true. We will only make progress when men’s violence against women is fundamentally seen as our problem as men. It’s counter-productive how so much activism on GBV has been corralled into the “women’s issues” arena and has excluded men. We’ve been outside the conversation, the thinking and the action for too long. Powerful ideas get transmitted much in the same way that genes do — only we call these memes. Once embedded in our minds they become powerfully entrenched. We need a new meme on gender-based violence that will transmit itself quickly and powerfully into all our minds and deep down into our communities.
Trevor Davies has worked in African media and development for 26 years. He challenges the conventional gendered stereotypes of Africa with innovative approaches. Currently co-ordinator for the Africa Fatherhood Initiative

our hCard

Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
1 Hood Avenue/148 Jan Smuts; Rosebank, GP 2196; South Africa
E 28° 2.1600000000001" S -26° 8.7420000000001"
Telephone: +27 (0)11 587 5000
FAX: +27 (0)11 587 5099

Twitter Feed

Our newsletters

Sign up for our newsletter to receive stories, research, and news, delivered periodically to your inbox.