In May 2023, Johanna Cecilia Keramin Beukes (37) was shot in public in a church by her husband, who was a police officer at the time. Delin Nawases (25) was reportedly stabbed multiple times all over her body and had her throat slit by her boyfriend in August. At 53, Frieda Kashawa’s body was reportedly covered with grass and set on fire, burnt beyond recognition. The Namibian police data shows that about 5 427 Gender-based Violence-related cases were reported in the 2019/20 financial year and 2 643 in 2020/2021, the majority of which were perpetrated by men against women.
The rise of violence against women led the youth of Namibia to protest against gender-based violence. A popular protest that sparked violent responses from law enforcement was the #ShutItAllDown demonstration. The #ShutItAllDown movement raised a petition that started the conversation about establishing the sex offender register. Several initiatives have been implemented to increase awareness, from the Ministry’s creation of the comprehensive GBV toolbox to training provided by the United Nations agencies.
The First Lady of Namibia launched the #BreakFree #BeFree campaign to support victims of violent crimes. The vast majority of public responses to the cases suggested that we as a nation pray to combat violence against women. Many asked that we consider the emotional and psychological well-being of the perpetrators. Some blamed the victims for not having regard for their male spouses and for being unfaithful. Others rationalized the violent acts of the perpetrators by attributing their behavior to jealousy and irrationality.
Attributing gender-based violence to men and masculinity is not enough to understand the surge of violence in Namibia. Solely focusing on violent masculinities may limit the prospect of studying structures that normalize violence in the first place. Men are not inherently violent and aggressive; social and cultural factors are at play. Often, responses attribute violence to violence to psychological consequences such as stress and inherent traits that ignore the structural factors that enforce violence. This does not mean that psychological factors are not important in the study of violence. At the core of GBV are the unequal power relationships that occur in the context of deep-seated patriarchy. Power relations between men and women stem from relations of power in our society.
Current movements in Namibia are centered on women empowerment initiatives and engaging men and boys in the discussions of SGBV. This is an important direction in the pursuit of combating GBV in Namibia. However, there is a need to challenge the cultural, religious and legal structures to determine how they collude with the justification and tolerance of violence against women. Hence, there is an urgency to contextualize GBV within the margins of structural violence.
Structural violence is institutionalized violence that emanates from unequal distribution of power and resources. Structural violence thus occurs when social institutions (culture, church, state, etc.) harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs. Different structures drive gender-based violence, and how they interact and shape society can lead to a rise.
Violence and Namibian cultures
Culture has a significant effect on how men and women relate. Namibian cultures enforce patriarchy, where men attain superiority over women. Gender ideology of male prowess and dominance over women is commonly used in cultures to reinforce masculinity. Men have a significant influence in decision-making. Culturally, people believe a husband has the right to chastise his wife if certain circumstances are met, like imposing discipline. These cultural customs in Namibia that condone the hitting of wives legitimize the means for men to assert authority over their spouses. Violence against women is a culturally acceptable way for men to demonstrate power and control, especially when their masculinity is questioned. It reveals how culture and traditions are used to harm, mistreat, and dehumanize women.
Namibian cultures continue to practice harmful cultural practices such as the sikenge (sexual readiness practices), labia minora enlargement and child marriages, which depict structural gender inequality, sexism, oppression of women and violence as the female body is sexualized and exploited. Cultural violence is subtly normalized violence through using cultural beliefs, norms and practices. These are used to support violence against women, which is the very basis of institutional violence (structural violence). Ending violent cultural practices and creating spaces to empower young women is essential in combating SGBV.
State upholds violence in public discourse
Namibia has pledged to stop all types of gender-based violence following international commitments such as the 10 Protocol on Gender and Development, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The National Gender Policy, Combating of Rape Act No. 8 of 2000 and the Combating of Domestic Violence Act No. 4 of 2003 are significant pieces of law that criminalizes gender-based violence in Namibia.
However, we see parts of the government debating rape. For instance, in 2022, Elma Dienda, an MP for the Popular Democratic Movement (PDM), asserted that there is no such thing as rape within a marriage and that a couple immediately consent to having sex upon nuptials. She ignored Section 2(3) of the Combating of Rape Act 8 of 2000, which unequivocally states that a spouse cannot utilize their marital relationship as a defense in court when accused of raping their partner.
In 2022, the Namibian Minister of Gender Equality, Poverty Eradication, and Social Welfare, Doreen Sioka, called for the arrest of victims of Sexual and Gender-based Violence who withdraw cases. Sioka asserted that it is shameful when victims choose to drop their cases, ignoring the social and legal constraints women encounter that force them to withdraw cases in the face of unrelenting victim blaming.
In 2020, the #ShutItAllDown protests led by primarily women took the streets in a demonstration against SGBV and were attacked by armed police. As far back as 2013, the Inspector-General of the Namibian Police declared the wearing of miniskirts illegal, saying miniskirts compelled men to rape, which led to the arrest of 40 girls who were wearing shorts.
Such state-sanctioned violence by law enforcement authorities reveals the very existence of institutionalized violence in Namibia. These perceptions by state authority and those in influential positions within the state reinforce stigma and severe discrimination against the victims of SGBV. It also reveals the internalization of patriarchal ideology by men and women within the state, which then infringes on the right to safety and security of women in Namibia.
The prosecution of rape cases takes too long in Namibia. The Legal Assistance Centre revealed how 92% of women reported receiving unfriendly or unhelpful services from the police when reporting SGBV cases. The majority of the survivors also noted that the GBV Unit delayed in investigating their cases, failed to follow up, and failed to protect them. Although Namibia has adopted these legal frameworks in combating SGBV, the implementation of it is challenging.
Combating SGBV requires putting an end to impunity by law enforcement. These findings reflect how the State has been unable to charge, investigate, and prosecute offenders effectively. Women’s rights are violated, and their abusers go unpunished when there is impunity. As a result, it undermines the efforts to address human rights violations. There is a need for the state to improve the institutions to provide comprehensive, integrated, high-quality health, social protection, policing, and legal services.
Religion’s place and violence
Most Namibians are Christians. Churches do not preach or promote gender equality. Biblical teachings on how women should submit to their husbands are commonly presented. This further suppresses women and perpetuates gender inequality. Women are more likely advised to pray for their abusers as opposed to reporting or leaving them. Marriage counselling sponsored by the church instructs women to forgive. These cases go unreported as they are “resolved” by the pastors.
The church’s involvement in the cause of gender equality is crucial. The church must deal with the perpetrators and be held accountable for silencing the voices of the victims.
Structural violence stems from gender inequalities reinforced by culture, religion and the state. Cultural and religious institutions normalize structural violence through ideologies and practices, whilst political and legal discourses uphold patriarchy rooted in religious and cultural beliefs. We need to understand that social structures produce violent masculinities. In responding to gender-based violence, we need to combat structural violence in Namibia. There is a need for leaders to hold these structures accountable and confront the harmful practices and ideologies that reinforce gender inequality.
Feature photo: Namibian women on the street, seen in Opuwo, the capital of the Kunene Region in north-western Namibia, Africa. RudiErnst / Shutterstock.com
Jermine April is a researcher and writer who holds a Master’s degree in Gender and Development studies from the University of Namibia with an Honors degree in Clinical Psychology. April’s research interests are Gender and Sexuality, Femininity and Masculinity Studies.