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Claiming our right to survive: we, women and girls of Namibia, claim our right to survive HIV and Aids by challenging poverty, oppressive cultural practices and violence.

This is the title of a booklet produced by Women's Leadership Centre (WLC) that was officially launched in August by the Minister of Gender Equality and Child Welfare, Marlene Mungunda. The Minister was represented by Eline Nghiitwikwa, Director of Community and Early Childhood Development, at the launch.

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The launch took place during a two-day advocacy training workshop conducted by WLC with women from various parts of the country, which introduced the booklet to the participants and prepared them to take the Women and Girls in Namibia Claiming our Right to Survive HIV and Aids Campaign back to their local communities.

In her introduction to the booklet, WLC director Elizabeth IKhaxas said "the issues contained in this booklet are the outcomes of many workshops on women's rights, writing, culture and HIV and Aids, as well as the findings of research that WLC has been undertaking. The booklet also represents the outcomes of wide consultations with our many partner organisations."

Economic Empowerment of the Poor

One of the issues addressed in the booklet is poverty. "There is a need for the redistribution of resources and wealth in our country to overcome poverty and restore dignity to all women and girls so that we can claim our right to survive HIV and Aids. We need Economic Empowerment of the Poor--EEP--in place of Black Economic Empowerment," Elizabeth said. "Poor woman and girls cannot protect themselves effectively from HIV if they are dependent on men for their livelihoods."

Transformation of our cultures and relationships

Elizabeth also addressed the need to practice the values of gender equality in our everyday lives, "including in our kitchens and our bedrooms. We need to let go of unequal relationships based on disrespect, abuse and violence. As Namibian women and girls we want love, respect, dignity and sharing in our relationships. Our value and status as women must lie within ourselves as human beings and should not be allocated to us through marriage, wifehood and motherhood."

She further called for "cultural change in Namibia which recognises that girls' and women's bodies belong to them wholly; that girls' and women's bodies are sacred; and that women and girls have sexual rights and reproductive rights, including the right to choose a safe abortion, which is still denied to Namibian women."

She emphasised, "we need cultural change that condemns all forms of sexual coercion and violence, be they a part of initiation practices, incest, female genital mutilation, widow cleansing, widow inheritance, lobola, child marriages, or forced marriages.

"Why are we not addressing these and other cultural issues if our very lives are now at stake?" she asked. "How long will we continue to sacrifice the mental, emotional and physical health of our girls and women to serve men's sense of entitlement to women's and girls' bodies to satisfy their own pleasure?"

Culture of silence around sexuality

In her keynote address, read by Eline Nghiitwikwa, the Minister of Gender Equality and Child Welfare said the culture of silence surrounding sex and sexuality in Namibia is one of the reasons that women and girls are becoming infected with HTV. "Our cultures do not allow women and girls, men and boys to talk openly about sex and sexuality matters. 'Good' women are expected to be ignorant about sex and passive in sexual relationships. This discourages women and young women from talking about sex, expressing interest in sex, and actively participating in negotiations related to safer sex. Women and girls thus pretend ignorance about sex and sexuality which can literally cost them their lives. As parents, as teachers and as partners we have to learn to talk to each other about issues of sex and sexuality," the Minister said.

Women's rights are crucial

The Minister went on to say, "Prevention must continue to be one of our main tasks. But we know now that if we want to prevent HIV and protect women we have to go beyond ABC, because the message of Abstain, Be faithful, Condomise has not prevented the spread of HIV and Aids in Namibia. We cannot continue to talk about behaviour change as if it is not rooted in culture. Behavioural change is not possible without change in our everyday lives of what it means to be a woman or a man in the different ethnic groups in Namibia. How can women 'abstain' from sex in a country where gender based violence is rife? How can there be 'faithfulness' with partners who have multiple sexual relationships even if they are married? Women have little use for messages that encourage them to use condoms if they are unable to convince their partners to actually use the condom correctly.

"We cannot address HIV and Aids without talking about women's rights and without talking about the relationships between women and men, and without addressing the root cause of male privilege and entitlement and female subservience. Thus enforcement of women's rights is a crucial issue in prevention of HIV and Aids," said the Minister.

"The time has come that we Namibians have to seriously discuss oppressive cultural practices that put women and girls at risk of HIV infection. The Namibian Constitution protects the equal rights and dignity of all our citizens and outlaws torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare is working towards harmonising traditional laws with the Constitution. We have started the process of educating traditional and religious leaders to uphold the Constitution particularly in the area of violence against women and girls. More needs to be done to protect the rights of women and girls to control their own bodies and make their own choices regarding sexuality, that is when, with whom, and how to have sex."

Collaboration is key

According to the Minister, the Namibian government has put in place laws and policies on gender that can protect women and girls. In her speech, she added that it is now everyone's responsibility to make sure these policies are implemented. "We all agreed that HIV and Aids cannot be handled by one government ministry or any one organisation alone," she said. "It needs an inter-sectoral approach and collaboration such as envisaged by the Claiming our Right to Survive HIV and Aids Campaign which is supported by both government and civil society."

"Both women and men must become active agents in the struggle against HIV and Aids," added the Minister. "Neither will win on their own, but together there is a good chance that we can bring the pandemic under control. However, this requires examining what we do right or do wrong as women and men in our relationships. This also requires recognising each others' human rights and sexual rights, about which we can read more in this booklet developed by the Women's Leadership Centre."

The booklet We, women and girls of Namibia, claim our right to survive HIV and Aids by challenging poverty, oppressive cultural practices and violence is available in Oshiwambo, Damara/Nama, Silozi, Rukwangali, Afrikaans and English. Call Caroline at tel 221106 to get copies.
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Title Annotation:WOMEN'S LEADERSHIP ON HIV AND AIDS
Author:Frank, Liz
Publication:Sister Namibia
Geographic Code:6NAMI
Date:Oct 1, 2007
Words:1172
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