Trigger Warning: This piece contains material about
domestic and sexual violence.
Written by: Masuma Ali
Edited by: Nisha Rajoo, Associate Editor
Namibia faces a serious crisis of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), with at least 200 cases of domestic violence handled by the police each month.
In early October, youth-led protests called for political action against SGBV. The protests erupted after the remains of Shannon Wasserfall (a 22-year-old woman who had gone missing in April) were found on 6th October by the police. Demonstrators took to the streets of Windhoek and other Namibian cities demanding political action against femicide, sexual abuse and rape.
While previous protests have been localised and limited, this national movement garnered international attention through the use of social media, suggesting that the younger generation is unsatisfied with previous government responses. Other women’s rights organisations like Slut Shame Movement, Outright Namibia and Power Pad Girls have also supported the ‘Shut it all down’ movement via social media, garnering a wider audience.
The ‘#shutitalldown’ movement disrupted public life in order to push for political action with commercial and central business areas being halted over the course of four days. Despite the government promising to tackle the issue, activists are pushing for concrete action and have stated that protests would continue if the government didn’t respond adequately. An activist, Bertha Tobias says that the government must meet three policy actions: the resignations of Namibian gender equality minister, Doreen Sioka and her deputy Bernadette Jagger; and to declare a state emergency. In their petition declaring this, campaigners have asked for the government to liaise with SGBV specialists to address the issue and review the sentencing laws for sex offenders and killers.
The Patriarchal History
A question that does need to be addressed is why Namibia faces such a crisis and its origins. During Namibia’s colonial era, new structures emerged of ‘tribal authority’ that held all-male domains, causing women to be removed from positions of power. These structures were reinforced by German and South African colonial rule, deeming women as objects of rule. All native policy being perceived as male left no room for women to hold positions of authority. This contrasts to pre-colonial Namibia where many women had access to property and were highly regarded as agricultural producers. Women were part of the sphere of production and this was integrated with reproduction, an idea known as the social reproduction theory, pioneered by Karl Marx. Thus, it arguably appears that Namibia’s colonial history played a vital role in entrenching the life-threatening gender roles prevalent today.
Norman Tjombe from the Legal Assistance Centre in Namibia argues that gender violence exists because of patriarchal power. Placing this patriarchy within a context of occupation, war and apartheid culminate in a legacy of continuous violence within Namibia. The predecessor Namibian government and the opposing South African forces used sexual violence as a demoralisation tool. Sexual violence was also used by the opposition to control women within their own forces, creating a distinction between rape carried out on civilians and rape carried out on women in the armed forces.
Teckla Shikola refers to the rape of Namibian women as ‘real rape’, explaining that South Africans knew how to divide-and-rule and ensured it was the black troops that committed rape. Rape by comrades, however, became a part of the job as a female combatant. The silence and lack of social mobilisation against sexual violence during the war was what gradually entrenched oppressive gender roles and attitudes, deeming these sexual exchanges as almost consensual.
Before the end of apartheid rule, activists were demanding changes to legislation and wanted harsher penalties for perpetrators. Constant pursuing against this violence and successful mobilisation by anti-rape activists led to the passing of the Combating Rape Act in 2000. The Act expanded the definition of rape to include men, women, boys and girls and was also adjusted to include sexual violations like oral rape or genital stimulation.
However, for this law to be successfully implemented and followed, patriarchal beliefs and public attitudes needed to be changed too. If some do not believe that forced sexual exchanges constitute rape or assume that there is no rape within marriage, the progressive nature of the Act cannot prevail. Laws do not have the power to alter mindsets and beliefs. Britton and Shook (2014) argue that continuing activism in the same way that brought about the Combating Rape Act is key to nurturing increased understandings that can influence practices on an individual, community and national level, allowing for a shift in beliefs.
Is Change on the Horizon?
So, have the recent wave of protests in Namibia sparked a change that
will initiate a practical transformation?
Speaking for the non-profit organisation Sister Namibia, Ndapwa Alweendo, believes the problem with solving this issue lies with the disconnect between the government and civil society organisations such as Sister Namibia. National plans were developed in 2016 and 2018, but they have not been implemented due to the constant dialogue between the government and civil society where any disapproval against the government’s suggestions is negatively perceived.
During the October 2020 protests, at least twenty five activists were arrested, urging the government to commence a review of the campaign’s demands. On 13th October, Prime Minister Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila announced that the police would fill around 160 vacancies in the gender-based violence protection unit. The government has already begun the process of establishing a sexual offenders register that would play a role in helping to minimise sexual violence.
Further plans include putting strict procedures in place before being allowed to withdraw reported cases of SGBV to ensure all cases can be fairly investigated. It does seem as though this recent wave of protests has had a profound impact on government action, but only time will tell whether the steps implemented will lead to a change in the hearts and minds of the Namibian people.