Namibia receiving the 2017 Gender Is My Agenda Campaign (GIMAC) Award placed the spotlight on women’s position in our post-independence dispensation. The award allowed us to interrogate not only women’s position in the political sphere, but also where we are socially and economically. GIMAC aims to create a space for civil society to monitor the implementation of the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa (SDGEA), which was adopted by AU heads of state and government in 2004.
When accepting the award, President Hage Geingob praised the ruling Swapo Party for implementing the 50/50 zebra style party lists, giving the party all the credit. It is important to note however, that all the credit must go to the Namibian Women’s Manifesto Network, which was a coalition of civil society organisations (CSO) led by Sister Namibia, under the leadership of Liz Frank and Elizabeth Khaxas at the time. The network launched the 50/50 campaign in 1999, which resulted in an advocacy campaign of six years, providing a platform for thousands of Namibian women to demand the equal representation of women in politics. The 50/50 Campaign became a model for women’s political empowerment across the globe.
It was thus notable that Sister Namibia, amongst many other women’s organisations, was not one of the CSOs that received recognition at the event. Not only is it a women-run CSO, it has done groundbreaking work in the areas of gender, and the empowerment of women and girls. The GIMAC award was given in recognition of the progress Namibia made in promoting gender equality, the empowerment of women, and in particular promoting women’s representation in key decision-making positions. According to the Legal Assistance Centre’s (LAC) Gender Analysis Report 2017, women constitute 41,7% of the National Assembly, 23,8% of the National Council, 16% of the regional councils, and 48% of local councilors. Women also serve in the Prime Minister, deputy prime minister, Chairperson of the National Council, and speaker of the National Assembly positions. In terms of the number of women in parliament, Namibia is doing very well with a ranking of 12th in the world. This, after we were ranked 29th in 2007.
The next obvious question is, has an increase in women at political level translated into the improvement of women’s position socially and economically?
The SDGEA not only foregrounds women’s participation in politics, but also women’s human rights, health, safety, socio-economic rights, education, and economic empowerment. According to the Demographic and Health Survey of 2013, more than one-third of women and girls who engaged in agricultural work received no payment for it. In 2016, unemployment among women youths was 49%, compared to 38% for men. Women remain the poorest of the poor. According to the Gender Analysis report, women are “less likely to be employed and, even when employed, earn less than men on average in most sectors.”
The country’s social protection system is a pivotally important lifeline for women, especially since they remain society’s main caregivers. It is important that government continues to improve it so it better serves women. The Gender Analysis report quotes a study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which notes that the lack of support for the unemployed leaves women more vulnerable because they remain unemployed longer than men. The ILO further notes that maternity benefits, along with benefits for sickness and employment injury, are available only to those in formal employment. This excludes the thousands of women who work in the informal economy. The Namibian newspaper recently reported that women represent 70% of the informal economy, and that this sector is responsible for about 40% of employment created in the country.
“Employment in the informal economy also does not encompass contracts for most employees, with the majority working extreme hours between 9 and 13 hours a day. Moreover, only 40% of those in the informal sector have access to sick leave benefits, while less than 30% have access to annual leave,” the article reads.
The 2011 census found that 46% of rural households were headed by women, yet the National Rural Development Policy does not specifically address the needs of women, although it “recognises that high levels of poverty are most extreme among vulnerable groups, such as female and youth-headed households.”
According to the 2013 Baseline Report on Human Rights, female respondents were slightly more likely than male respondents to say that their access to sanitation had gotten worse.
High rates of teenage pregnancies, domestic and sexual violence against women and girls, the list can go on in relation to the lack of bodily autonomy suffered by this country’s women. In fact, the list that highlights challenges faced by Namibia’s women is long. Some will say that we are better off than women of many other countries, hence the GIMAC Award. This is true, but comparing ourselves to countries that are worse off than us all the time can result in complacency, and failure to interrogate the merits of the recognition, or award we received. Do we deserve the award? Yes, we do because we are part of a continent that performs dismally in regard to respecting, protecting and promoting the overall well-being of its women and girls.
A few years ago I was asked what it is like to be a Namibian feminist woman. I said I consider myself blessed to be a feminist in a country that has committed itself to gender equality at policy level. Most African governments do not even bother with developing policies that could lead to the betterment of women and girls’ position in society. Using the African Union, United Nations and other international instruments as guiding lights, we have a policy and legal framework that reads like Namibia would be an ideal country for women and girls when achieved.
However, appointing or electing women in political and corporate leadership positions certainly is not the best way to achieve this. We tend to forget that women themselves can be partriarchal, because that is the way we are all raised. Most women in power are pawns of patriarchy, they think no different than the man sitting next to them.
In 2016 a motion to provide sanitary pads to disadvantaged schoolgirls for free, was tabled by a man, DTA leader McHenry Venaani. The deputy speaker said she is embarrassed to discuss menstruation in parliament. The deputy minister of gender equality and child welfare also tried to silence the debate by claiming that the ministry does have programmes that provide sanitary pads. How serious is this project if it is such an unknown fact? How is the presence of these ladies in parliament a plus for women and girls?
Effectively implementing the wide range of relevant policies and laws we have is the best way to go about it. In his acceptance speech President Geingob said, “In Namibia, gender equality is not a slogan. We breathe it, speak it, and live it.” This unfortunately is not factual, in Namibia we write about gender equality and appoint women in what is regarded as key positions, but these are mere cosmetic changes.
Dismantling patriarchy requires a commitment to challenging it all levels and it includes adapting what we teach in schools, what we publish in and broadcast on mainstream media, providing gender training to policy-makers, and supporting civil society efforts that focus on the empowerment of women and girls. It is also about developing policies with detailed actions in regard to the achievement of gender equality, so that government and stakeholders can be held accountable when targets are not met.
Let us enjoy the pride that comes with being recognised as a leader in the area of gender equality. But let it also be a reminder that we still have a long way to go before we can truly claim that our women and girls are equal to men in Namibia.
By Natasha Tibinyane