By Mwaka Simasiku
THE Women’s Leadership Centre, (WLC) in partnership with the British High Commission Windhoek will be holding a National Dialogue on the Prevention of Harmful Cultural Practices in Zambezi Region on February 13th and 14th.
This organisation works towards building a society in which all women are actively engaged in shaping the politics, practices and values of both public and private spheres of life.
It is aimed to support grassroots development of leadership among Namibian women by promoting the voice, visibility, creativity and transformative leadership of women from the most marginalised sectors of society, supporting them to form women’s groups and to articulate their experiences, needs and desires through texts, photography and other forms of creative expressions, informed by a critical feminist consciousness of their human rights as women and as citizens.
WLC’s programme focuses on building leadership at the regional and national level on the prevention of harmful cultural practices that expose girls and women to all forms of violence as well as high risk of HIV and Aids throughout their life cycle.
So far the organization has successfully embarked on the projects, through the Women’s Rights and Writing Workshops conducted by the WLC in Caprivi/Zambezi Region from 2005 that young women began to break the silences and taboos around the many harmful cultural practices targeting girls and women in their families and communities.
In its report, the organization narrates that many of these practices involve making girls and women’s bodies sexually pleasurable and available to men, for example through elongation of the labia minora starting long before they reach puberty stage; sexually readiness testing by male relatives during initiation into ‘good womanhood’ – a culturally accepted form of rape; dry sex and scarification, all of which expose girls and women to pain, humiliation, violence as well as HIV and Aids.
“Violent initiation practices that include physical and emotional abuse prepare them for subservience as wives and daughters in law: to accept early and forced marriage, polygamy, lobola, divorce that leaves them with nothing, and widow cleansing (often through sexual intercourse) after the death of their husband.”
“Over the past ten years, figures from the Ministry of Health and Social Services show that almost 50% of pregnant women aged between 25 and 49 tested in Katima Mulilo, Zambezi region, are leaving with HIV. This is double the national average! Among the girls and young women aged 15 to 24, the HIV prevalence rate is almost 25% which is three times the national average!”
The WLC has worked with young women in various villages across the Zambezi Region over the past ten years on the assumption that the girls and young women of today can protect their own daughters, nieces and granddaughters from the ‘cycle of violence’, once they have gained an understanding of human rights including the right of girls and women to be protected from all forms of violence, and have gained power and agency through feminist critical consciousness and by organizing themselves to support one another and speak out as a group.
The organization has created local and regional platforms at which the young women were able to speak out on the need to protect girls and young women from these practices. They have addressed and given testimonies to traditional leaders, regional governors, local councilors and staff of state agencies based in the regional capital Katima Mulilo, as well as representatives of political parties prior to the 2014 national elections.
“These young women have taken the courage to break the culturally prescribed silences and taboos surrounding these practices, and have gained support from teachers, social workers, nurses, staff of women and child protection unit, and regional, local and traditional leaders.”
They have also included traditional leaders in training activities as well as local and regional dialogues attended by the above groups, and gained their support.
In 2012 they trained 23 traditional leaders on this issue at the request of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare, funded by UNFPA.
“With the forthcoming National Dialogue the Women’s Leadership Centre aims to scale up the Zambezi for Women’s Rights Programme through strengthening leadership and accountability among all stakeholders at the regional and national level for the prevention of harmful cultural practices in Zambezi Region.”
Women’s Leadership Centre is a feminist organisation based in Windhoek, Namibia, with its core activity to promote women’s writing and other forms of personal and creative expression as a form of resistance to discrimination and oppression embedded in patriarchal cultures and society, with the aim of developing indigenous feminist activism in Namibia.
This is also an award winner for the Caprivi Women’s Rights Project at the Gender Links Summit in 2011.
“The WLC is looking forward to this National Dialogue as an opportunity to get this issue onto the national agenda and to collectively chart a way forward to protect the human rights of girls and women in Zambezi Region, including their right to health and well-being and their right to live their lives free from all forms of violence, including violence through harmful cultural practices.” Says Ms Liz Frank, WLC Programme Manager.
Ms Frank further added that during the dialogue to be held at Zambezi Protea Hotel in Katima Mulilo, there will be good participation from the national level with high profile speakers from UNICEF, UNFPA, the Ombudsman Advocate Walters, the Chairperson of the Law Reform and Development Commission, staff from the ministries of health, gender, education, the British and Finnish embassies and the EU.