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Women reject govt denial of harmful cultural practices

By Risco Lumamezi

A FEMINIST organisation under the umbrella of Women Leadership Centre in Namibia, (WLC) has broken silence on Namibian government’s denial to UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights to the existence of harmful cultural practices among girls and women to exposure of HIV and AIDS.

WLC Participants during the media workshop in Katima Mulilo

This was exposed by WLC during the media workshop conducted in Katima Mulilo recently.

However, the participants have also accused the response by the Namibian government to the UN Committee monitoring the implementation of the Convention on Civil and Political Rights in 2016.

According to the recent HIV and AIDS report compiled by the Ministry of Health and Social Services in Namibia, Katima Mulilo is still topping being the worst with the highest prevalence of HIV among women tested bi- annually in all towns of Namibia.

This also showed statistics that over 40 percent of women aged 25 to 49 years of age have tested HIV positive over the past ten years.

“Denials at the highest level of government of the link between harmful cultural practices and HIV will ensure that both women and men, girls and boys will continue to be exposed to HIV and Aids through harmful cultural practices such as dry sex, kupaza, sexual readiness testing, widow cleansing and others in our region”. Said Ms. Liz Frank, program Director of WLC.

The Caprivi Vision has established that the new advocacy by the feminist group in Namibia has propagated confusion among the Caprivian culture on views that customary beliefs that goes along during ‘sikenge’ initiation has been labelled by the organisation as a harmful practice which spreads the transmissions of HIV and AIDS.

Though, some of the political leaders and residents in Zambezi region are too cognisant and have accused the organisation for changing the cultural values and norms of the people in the region.

In Zambezi region alone, the project for Women Leadership Centre in Namibia has been strongly working together with the group consisting of traditional leaders, community facilitators, young women and elders since its inception in 2014.The project is funded by British High Commission in Namibia.

WLC is still concerned to the issue of government denials of the existence of harmful cultural practices that subject girls and women to all forms of violence and high risk of exposure to HIV and AIDS, as expressed in a written response by government to the UN Committee monitoring the implementation of the Convention on Civil and Political Rights in 2016.

According to the community facilitator Ms.Dephine Namasiku Siyunda from Libula Village east of Katima Mulilo expressed concerns to the Minister of Justice Dr. Albert Kawana who denied the existence of this harmful practice

“We are also referring to the justice minister who said harmful cultural practices are not there, which is not true ”

Induna Bernard Namita from Mafwe Traditional Authority at Chinchimani a polygamist and who is the member of the WLC in the region professed that “ a new broom sweeps well than old broom, this means that me am married to two wives before this awareness, though my love to them is different therefore the only way is to love them all and provide everything”

Induna Namita condemned the practicing of sexual readiness testing as a harmful practice among the community saying this transmits the HIV and AIDS to young women who will be groomed to continue having sex at a tender age when they reach puberty stage.

“In other cultures, the issue of testing the girl is not good, this harmful practice must be taken away, the uncle will have sex with the daughter of his sister, other means to know how she can perform in bed thereafter the uncle will give report that she is good this practice is encouraging the young girl to continue having sex which at the end will lead to unwanted pregnancy.”

Human rights perspectives and its discourse

Earlier this year in February, during the workshop in Katima Mulilo, Ombudsman of Namibia Adv. John Walters proposed the law to criminalize all offenders who are violating the rights of young women during sikenge (female initiation ceremony) eventually men who test or having sex with young women to face the law and all victims to seek for the prosecution.

Some of the practices among the Caprivian people have been described by WLC as harmful, which are dry sex where a girl has to go through severe pain, tearing and exchange of blood while a man is being satisfied during sex, as this practice makes it possible for the woman and girl to get injured during sex and this can be considered as rape and assault.

The proposed law would also be applicable to elderly ladies who are forcing young girls to be pulling their labia minoras ‘malebe’ when reach puberty stage, and those uncles and grandfathers testing the virginity of their young girls by having sexual intercourse in ‘sikenge’ are also committing rape as there is no consent.

Adv. Walters made suggestions that “We should criminalize these harmful practices so that people can go to court, file a complaint, so that the offender can be arrested or prosecuted.”

He added, “The government should provide legal aid so that any person whose rights have been violated can instruct a lawyer and sue the person who violated these rights.”

According to him, Article 25 sub article 2 of the Namibian Constitution states that aggrieved persons who claim that his/her human rights or fundamental freedoms have been violated may approach the courts, or they may approach the Ombudsman for legal assistance or advice.

Adv. Walters further outlined the conventions of the rights and education of the child shall be directed to the development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and for the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations (UN).

However, Namibia’s Law Reform Chairperson, Ms.Yvonne Dausab has also co-opted warning all perpetrators who are violating the fundamental rights and freedoms of women, with harmful cultural practices to stop it.

Ms. Dausab who facilitated a legal perspective on the prevention of harmful cultural practices in the Zambezi Region, during the National Dialogue organised by a feminist organisation called Women’s Leadership Centre (WLC) shed some lights about the relationship between these harmful cultural practices in conformity with the legal framework, which is the Namibian Constitution.

“Why is it that when we talk about changing Customary to benefit all Namibians we are resisting it resisting it? Civil Law and Customary Law are on the same page, if this is correct, customary law must be questioned and changed when it becomes unconstitutional.” Stressed Ms. Dausab.

She added saying that the law is not everything, but it is important when people talk about law should understand that it plays a small part, the bigger part has to do with attitudes, behaviour, and interaction among each other.

“When we were talking about marriage I was told to go through dancing lessons, but I asked what my husband to be was going to be taught, no answer was given. No one would have a problem if the culture is applied equally to everyone.”

Namibia’s Law Reform Chairperson, She however interpreted that by law a culture is a way of life that a community has agreed upon with values and norms, have accepted and it has been practiced over a period of time, but it must be right for everyone to practice it.

“In this case everyone has the right to respect and dignity, whereby the practice of forcing these young girls to be pulling their labia minora ‘malebe’ goes against this law. Those uncles and grandfathers tasting the virginity of their young girls in ‘sikenge’ are also committing rape because there is no consent. “She lamented

“The term consent in law means to give permission, the permission given should be positive and not uncertain, No should mean No, Yes should mean Yes. If you don’t agree then you don’t agree. No one should force you to do something you do not desire.”

“Whatever we do should be of good interest for the people not something that deprives them. We all know that culture changes as we grow, we leave what is bad behind and move forward with what we perceive as good.”

Ms. Dausab, a Lawyer by profession and who lectured Law at the University of Namibia before she was appointed by president Hage Geingob in 2015, warned that “ Mothers who take their children to sikenge at a tender age should do away with that because you could be liable of rape, let the child reach an age which they are well enough to make their own decision whether to go for it or not, do not force them. We should protect our young girls”.

“When you do something harmful to a person it means that you want to hate that person which is against the law. If a woman or your wife tells you that she’s tired she can’t have sex on that day, be understanding and do not try to force her into it.”

Respected Caprivian women walking on the street of Katima Mulilo

“If you were in the process of having sex and in the middle of it a woman says she doesn’t want anymore, you have to pull out… [Yvonne Laughing], because if you are taken to court and the judge asks you if she told you to stop and you say yes, you will be found guilty of rape” said Ms. Dausab

She mentioned that everyone should be treated equally in the eyes of the law, “so if a man practices polygamy why can’t a woman have more than one husband”.

Chairperson of Law Reform in Namibia further concluded with extreme caution that “Be careful, because these harmful practices can work against you when taken in the hands of the law!”

Meanwhile, during the national dialogue conducted in Katima Mulilo in February this year the participants who were present made suggestions and raised concerns and understanding of their culture on the burning issue of sikenge.

One of the participants Ms.Kambinda spoke on the issue of sikenge, in which she said that some of these practices differ from area to area, and that some of the people have learned earlier that some of the practices were not good and beneficial for their children, so they already eliminated them.

The participant emphasized on the issue of sikenge as being a practice that was to be used to teach women respect, hard work and preparing women for their husbands. The teachings were for the purpose of marriage.

“Sikenge is equivalent to Olufuko, when you talk about sikenge you should remember Olufuko, they are the same. I also think that other African cultures have these elements.” Stated Ms. Kambinda.

She further added that the purpose of marriage couldn’t be taught to children, because the law does not allow parents to marry their children when they are younger.

“Can you imagine a 14 year old having sex with a very experienced old man, it’s like having sex with a horse!” she speculated

To her understanding the issue of cutting at the back was a form of decoration like the Owambo ladies wear beads around their waists to create sensation for the man during sex. These cuts were meant for decoration like a tattoo.

“The difference with our tattoo companies that are well registered in Windhoek and they pay tax to the government, and because they end up getting money and they are allowed to practice that because there is an element of consent. That tattoo is painful. Is it a good practice or is it because it is happening under those procedures?” she alluded

Another participant, Mr Charles Siyauya, Bukalo Village Council Councillor raised points in which he said that in Namibia or in general, there is Cultural Imperialism.

“Cultural Imperialism is the issue of importing some of these foreign cultures into our culture.” He explained

He added that in Namibia there are institutions like the American Cultural centre and the British Council, their duties being to instil their culture into our culture.

“Today we have got Channel O and Trace music channels where young girls are dancing naked on our screens, is that not a harmful culture? Why are we not talking about that, why are we silent about it?” he questioned

He further asked when we would have a Namibian Cultural centre in New York America or in UK Britain.

He appealed “I know there is poverty in Namibia, so my appeal to those who are involved in this programme, do not sell our culture, do not sell us for donor funding. I know you are getting employment and getting bread on your table, but please do not sell us. Also the sponsors do not take advantage of our poverty level for you to exploit us. That, we can not tolerate in our lifetime.”

He added that on the issue of sikenge, men also have sikenge, which is known as ‘mupato’ in which boys get circumcised at a tender age, which he testified to have undergone through. When a man gets married his uncles are there to teach him how to handle a lady in life as well as in bed.

“On the issue of consent, I’m told a minor is somebody bellow 18 years, parents should help her make decisions because she’s still a minor, so are parents wrong for making a decision for their child to go for sikenge or any other cultural practice which is viewed by the parents as good?” the participant referred the question to Law Reform Chairperson Yvonne Dausab

One of the participants concluded saying “in our culture, there are elements that are terrible and we need to eliminate them and keep the good practices. The good part of these practices did not come out; they must come out because sometimes there is danger when you remove everything without replacing it. You create problems for the community!”