Challenging cultural practices that expose women to HIV and Aids.
Our discussions focused on the ways in which gender-based violence, poverty and specific cultural practices make women and girls vulnerable to infection with HIV.
Participants from across the country told, dramatised and wrote down their stories, many of which focused on the issues that are summarised below. The workshops deepened our collective understanding of the urgent need for women and girls to challenge, resist and transform cultural practices that not only deny us our rights to equality, dignity, personal autonomy and choice, but expose us to the life-threatening virus that leads to Aids.
Various forms of 'marriage' endanger girls and women
Child marriages, arranged marriages and forced marriages are still prevalent in some of our communities, and put girls and women at risk of HIV infection. Young women are given away to uncles and cousins, usually men who are much older than themselves. The young women do not have a choice; parents and other family or clan members decide to whom they will be given into marriage, with the aim of keeping the wealth in the extended family. Some women are forced to marry their deceased sister's husband. Widows are sometimes forced to marry their brother-in-law or another relative of their deceased husband; again to keep the wealth within the extended family. As long as these forms of forced marriages persist, Namibian women's rights are violated and they cannot protect themselves from HIV and Aids.
Without marriage a woman is nothing
Girls and women are taught that marriage is the only way through which a female can gain status in her community. Marriage is considered to be a "safe haven" where partners are supposedly faithful to each other. However, one group of women who are severely affected by HIV and Aids is young married women. We have to educate our girls that marriage is an option, a choice and not a must, and that both as single and as married women they have sexual rights, that is the right not to be raped, the right to choose contraceptive methods and the right to demand the use of condoms by their partner or husband.
Without a child a woman is nothing
Women have to prove their fertility at all costs in many of our communities. Men pressurise women to have children, and women bow to the pressure in the hope that the father of their child will marry them. The pressure to have a child is so great that women who are living with HIV and who already have children become pregnant to prove that they are not ill and to prove their womanhood. We have to educate our girls and women that becoming pregnant means risking HIV infection through unprotected sex. Having a child is an option, a choice, not a must; and adoption of children is another option.
Sexual violations of women and girls
Incest and sexual abuse of girl children by brothers and other males in the family still continue unabated in many Namibian families. There is a culture of silence around this issue that protects the perpetrators.
In some communities, sexual cleansing rituals are enforced. After the death of a husband, a widow has to be cleansed by having sexual intercourse with a man chosen by the family. If she refuses she is accused of bringing bad luck to the family. It has happened that women have become pregnant and contracted HIV through this practice, which fuels the Aids pandemic.
The practice of 'dry sex', in which women use herbs to dry out the vagina and thereby enhance the sexual pleasure of men, leads to the tearing of the wall of vagina and exposes women further to infection with HIV.
Silence and obedience put women at risk of HIV and Aids
A 'good marriageable woman' is believed to be silent, obedient and shy. Our girls are raised not to challenge and demand but to obey. This is further reinforced by different religions that teach women to obey their husbands at all costs.
What is a Namibian women's chance to survive the Aids pandemic? Discussions of sex are seen as dirty and taboo and men are seen as the ones who are supposed to take the initiative in sexual matters. How can women and girls confront boys and men in such situations?
Moreover, divorce is out of the question for many women, who have to endure domestic violence, including the violation of becoming infected by a promiscuous husband 'until death do us part.'
Practices of worshipping men and enslaving women
In some communities women have to kneel before husbands and other males, for example when they are serving them food. We call this practice 'enforced worshipping of men and enslavement of women'. There is a need to debate the meanings of this practice and the effect that it has on women and girls in terms of their dignity, humanity and equality.
Celebration of male promiscuity puts women at risk
Many Namibian cultures accept, encourage and celebrate men's promiscuity. The belief is that the more women a man has had sex with, the more popular and manly he is. To have multiple relationships or be in a polygamous marriage is seen as a man's right. The HIV prevention slogan "be faithful" is thus not working for thousands of Namibian couples. We need new messages of manhood that celebrate and nurture life, not death.
Traditional healing practices spread HIV
Some traditional healers 'treat' women and young women through having sexual intercourse with them to 'cure' infertility and back pains. Whole families have contracted HIV through the use of the same razor blade on everyone. Some traditional healers encourage men to have sex with babies and virginal young girls to cure themselves from HIV and Aids.
RELATED ARTICLE: Recommendations
At the end of the last workshop we held a press conference, at which we called on our government to undertake comprehensive research on harmful cultural practices and beliefs in all Namibian ethnic groups to break the silence and the condoning of such practices and beliefs. This should be followed by law reform and educational campaigns to end these practices in order for women and girls in Namibia not only to enjoy their dignity, rights and freedoms as human beings, but as a matter of sheer survival in face of the Aids pandemic.
We further called on the Ministry of Education to include issues of women's rights and gender equality in all aspects of the curriculum, and to develop and implement gender policies in schools and other institutions of learning in order to protect the rights and save the lives of young women and girls.
We called on all the churches to stop teachings of male worshipping, in which total obedience to male power is enforced through marriage vows; and instead to teach a religion of equality that will save lives.
Finally, we called on all women and girls in Namibia to take our own lives into our own hands, to know that we are full human beings with full human dignity, personal autonomy and rights. Our own lives and our right to live must become the first priority before anything else. To look after ourselves well we have to learn to become strong, independent and selfish.