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Namibia's first national conference on gender-based violence.

 "I used to put on a smile in the morning even though I was battered
the night before. I would wake up in the morning with a blue eye, put on
makeup, and smile to the world. Don't be Silent. Stand Up."
--Survivor of gender based violence


In mid-June, 350 delegates representing government, civil society, traditional authorities, churches and non-governmental organisations from all parts of the country came together in Windhoek to discuss the burning issue of gender-based violence. The four-day conference, hosted by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare, addressed many critical issues and also developed a set of recommendations for what various groups in society can do to fight this form of violence. It was the first time so many stakeholders came together to talk about this issue.

The conference took place against the background of two of the most brutal crimes committed in recent years: the torso of a woman had been found the day before in a rubbish bin along a highway, and a father had been arrested for allegedly raping his four-month-old twins, one of whom died from his injuries.

Minister of Gender Equality and Child Welfare Marlene Mugunda reminded the participants that victims of gender-based violence are more than just statistics and stories in the newspaper; they are friends, neighbours and sometimes family members. She noted that the people who are committing such violent crimes were raised in our own homes, and said "We must ask what type of society will raise people that commit these types of crime."

What is gender-based violence?

Speakers from the SADC Gender Unit, the Commonwealth Secretariat and UNICEF made it clear that gender-based violence is not only a Namibian phenomenon but takes place in various forms worldwide. UNICEF Consultant Jeanne Ward provided a definition of this kind of violence as follows: "Gender-based violence is an umbrella term for any harmful act that is perpetrated against a person's will, or without their informed consent, and that is based on socially ascribed (gender) differences between males and females."

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She said that gender-based violence includes intimate partner violence, including acts of physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse, and controlling behaviour in the context of marriage or other intimate relationships; rape and sexual assault; sexual coercion and harassment; sexual violence and exploitation in the context of armed conflict; trafficking; child marriage; female genital mutilation/cutting; and other traditional practices that are harmful to women and girls.

Jeanne Ward explained why gender-based violence significantly and disproportionately impacts women and girls as follows:

"As we all know, 'gender' refers to the socially determined differences between men and women. These differences encompass roles, responsibilities, opportunities, privileges, expectations, and limitations ascribed to males and to females in any culture: they are socially constructed, context based, and learned through socialisation, and they inform relationships between men and women as well as among women and among men. Although gendered roles and responsibilities can change over time within and across cultures, they are often deeply rooted in longstanding assumptions societies hold about women, men, boys, and girls.

"What is important for us to understand, is that in virtually every society around the world, these assumptions tend to reinforce patriarchal norms and values, or systems by which men hold more power than women in both private and public domains and, to differing degrees, exercise this greater power as a basic entitlement or a basic right. In this way, gender roles are used to both preserve and maintain women's subordinate status in relation to men, and for this reason, gender has been identified as one the most important underlying factors promoting all forms of violence against women and girls.

This is why violence against women has been described as "gender-based violence."

Why don't we speak out?

Many participants at the conference pointed out that gender-based violence is usually seen as a 'private family matter', in which neither the neighbours nor the police should interfere. "In this way we perpetuate the silence and deny the very existence of this form of violence," said Magdeline Mathiba-Madibela, head of the SADC Gender Unit.

Dr. Gudrun Kober of the Peace Centre gave a psychological explanation for this social practice, saying that "we Namibians try to cope with violence, historical and current, by becoming emotionally numb, but this is also what makes us numb to violence that we see every day. We close our eyes and pretend it's not happening."

Conference participants concluded that it was critical to break this silence by eradicating the stigma of being a victim of violence. We need to take gender-based violence out of the home and into the public sphere. Yet, as documented by Dianne Hubbard of the Legal Assistance Centre in a recent study on rape in Namibia, in cases where survivors do report to the police, the vast majority of the perpetrators are not brought to book. (We will report in more detail on this study in the next issue of Sister Namibia.)

Who is particularly silenced?

Speaking for the National Federation of People with Disabilities, volunteer Ruth Woodhead called for a strong focus on protecting the rights of women with disabilities, who are often the targets of acts of violence yet remain unheard. And while the conference was supposed to be about breaking silences and taboos, the voices of lesbian women were completely silenced, and even literally erased from the publication "I Stories" launched on the last day, which contains testimonies of survivors.

The role of alcohol

Alcohol abuse was seen as a strong contributing factor to gender-based violence in Namibia. Norman Tjombe of the Legal Assistance Centre made the point that "We have more shebeens selling alcohol than the number of police stations, clinics and schools combined," but added that "whether you are sober or you are drunk, if you don't respect women it will show." Referring to gender inequality as the root cause of violence he concluded that "There is clearly something wrong with what we are teaching children about what it means to be male and what it means to respect other people."

The role of culture

While some participants called for a 'return to traditional norms and values', others pointed out that there are some cultural practices that perpetuate and condone violence, for example the practice of uncles "initiating" young women into sex, which Tjombe said should be recognised for what it is, namely rape.

Dr. Meena Shivdas, Gender Adviser to the Commonwealth Secretariat, emphasised that cultures everywhere are in fact flexible and adapt to changing social contexts. In making their recommendations to the conference, the Namibian traditional leaders agreed that traditional laws needed to be codified and brought into line with the constitution. They further called for the immediate implementation of the Community Courts Act to empower the Traditional Authorities to effectively combat gender-based violence.

Recommendations

Many other recommendations came out of this landmark conference. Participants agreed that we need to launch a Zero Tolerance for Gender-Based Violence Campaign. Adequate budgetary allocations have to be made for all the relevant stakeholders if this commitment to Zero Tolerance is to become a reality. We need to have a network of Women and Child Protection Units all over the country with adequate equipment and premises that would include shelter for battered women and children. Police must get better and more training, equipment, transport, and means of communication, and statements from the complainants should be recorded in their home language to ensure accuracy. Prisons should be equipped for rehabilitation and provide counselling and therapy. Churches should adopt gender balance on their councils, and preach and teach about peace at all levels of the church. Non-governmental organisations should support training on gender and peaceful conflict resolution.

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COPYRIGHT 2007 Sister Namibia
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE
Author:Amick, Emily; Frank, Liz
Publication:Sister Namibia
Geographic Code:6NAMI
Date:Jul 1, 2007
Words:1286
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