Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
Anyone hoping that there has been a progressive change in attitudes about sex and gender in Namibia will have been sorely disappointed by the results of a recent study, which shows that the country’s youths largely approve of the sexual norms that have been passed down from generation to generation.
Commissioned by the Legal Assistance Centre, the study was led by Suzanne LaFont, who is a professor of anthropology at the City University of New York, and involved questioning 15-20 year-olds across the country – in the hope of getting an accurate picture of people’s attitudes around gender and sexual behaviour.
Unsurprisingly, the study found that girls in private schools in the capital, Windhoek, were the most progressive, while boys in rural communities were the most conservative. But beyond that generalisation – the findings were far more nuanced and interesting with notable differences in attitudes among Namibia’s various language groups.
For example, Damara-speaking youngsters are far less supportive of patriarchal traditions, but vociferously opposed to homosexual rights (not that homosexuals have any in Namibia!) and to the decriminalisation of sex work. Meanwhile, Herero and Himba speakers embraced the continuation of patriarchal cultural practices, and in general did not support equal sexual rights, but interestingly were the biggest champions of gender parity in terms of sexual behaviour – believing that women need to experience orgasms as much as men and that it was completely acceptable for women to initiate sex.
However, Ovambo youngsters did not see the importance of foreplay or female or male orgasms, and showed less interest in educating themselves about sex.
Another unsurprising finding is that attitudes towards male circumcision are dependent on cultural identity with support from the Herero and Himba, who have traditionally practiced it, and no support from Ovambo and Damara speakers, who do not practice it.
But interestingly, Ovambo youngsters do not support widow inheritance, a practice among the Ovambo, Herero and Lozi cultures where a widow is 'inherited' by her deceased husband's brother, who assumes control of her body and her worldly assets. Unfortunately, Herero youth do continue to support it.
Another fascinating finding is that support for the maintenance of lobola – or bride price – is higher among urban youth than rural youth. The Ovambo, Herero, Himba, and to a lesser extent Damara cultures practice lobola, and yet, it was not widely supported by rural youngsters from these groups. The reasons behind the urban-rural split on this issue need further study but LaFont feels that it may be because young urban women believe that lobola emphasises their worth (critical in an urban setting) and formalises their marriages (more important in urban areas where community ties and rules are much weaker).
But there was a more expected outcome in relation to polygamy. The newly proposed Recognition of Customary Marriages Bill could mean the end of polygamous marital arrangements in Namibia – and this would certainly be supported by the overwhelming majority of urban youths. But not by most rural youths.
As for homosexual rights, both urban and rural youths are opposed to promoting the rights of homosexuals. But interestingly, rural youths are more curious about homosexuality. And perhaps even more interestingly, while a large majority of males disapproved of male homosexuality, there was generally more tolerance of lesbianism.
But while there appears to have been little change in beliefs about sexuality and gender in Namibia, there is cause for hope because the study certainly found that – while young men and women adhere to age-old views in many cases, they also exhibited a thirst for more information and indicated their desire for a more nuanced, open and honest dialogue.ShareThis