Hands off! My body belongs to me! Women claiming their rights in Caprivi Region.
Subject: Workshops (Educational programs) (Management)
Women, Black (Civil rights)
Women, Black (Beliefs, opinions and attitudes)
Women's rights (Management)
Author: Khaxas, Elizabeth
Pub Date: 07/01/2011
Publication: Name: Sister Namibia Publisher: Sister Namibia Audience: Academic; General Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences; Women's issues/gender studies Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Sister Namibia ISSN: 1026-9126
Issue: Date: July, 2011 Source Volume: 23 Source Issue: 2
Topic: Event Code: 200 Management dynamics Computer Subject: Company business management
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Namibia Geographic Code: 6NAMI Namibia
Accession Number: 264175219
Full Text: When the Women's Leadership Centre (WLC) brought women from across Caprivi Region together in workshops on Women's Rights, Writing, Culture, HIV and Aids in 2006, we had little knowledge of the many cultural practices that violate the human rights of women, young women and girls in this region. Most of these practices were shrouded in taboos and silence. But gradually, as the participants got to know and appreciate their human rights, including their sexual and reproductive rights, and as trust was built in the safe space of the workshops, they began to find their voice. They shared their personal experiences of humiliation, degradation, pain and violence in the name of culture.

The stories contributed by some of the women to the two WLC anthologies ("Between Yesterday and Tomorrow" and "We must choose Life") dealt with issues of witchcraft, lobola, early and arranged/ forced marriage, polygamy and male promiscuity, elongation of the labia minora (the inner lips covering the vagina) among girls, physical and emotional violence during sikenge (initiation), the rape of girls through 'sexual readiness testing' by uncles, grandfathers or other male relatives, the creation of numerous scars on the back and the arms of girls through cutting, harmful traditional healing practices, dry sex, infertility and the pressure to bear children, property stripping of widows, widow inheritance, widow cleansing - and the ways in which all of these practices violate the rights of women and girls, lead to unwanted pregnancy and expose them to HIV infection and Aids.

Caprivi Region has the highest prevalence of l-IIV among women in Namibia: 46 percent of women aged 25 to 49 tested HIV positive in 2010, compared to the national average of 26.4 per cent for this age group. Among younger women, 23.1 per cent tested positive in Caprivi compared to the national average of 10.3 per cent. (Source: Report on the 2010 National Sentinel Survey, Ministry of Health and Social Services).

Over a hundred personal stories

In order to learn more about the various cultural practices and explore ways in which they could be challenged, resisted and transformed, the Women's Leadership Centre trained 15 of the writing workshop participants in feminist perspectives on gender and sexuality, violence, culture, HIV and Aids. They also acquired interviewing and photography skills for conducting field research. These field researchers collected over one hundred personal stories from women, young women and girls in the different ethnic communities on the cultural practices already discussed in the writing workshops. Other practices began to emerge, such as mulaleka, using witchcraft to have sex with a girl or woman while she is in a 'dream' state (drugged).

Our next step was to reach out across the region with a first draft of the research findings, in order to verify them and the language used for the various practices in English, Silozi and other local languages. We invited the traditional leaders in 20 villages to identify women to participate in this process, who would then educate women in their communities on their human rights and how these are violated through harmful cultural practices. These Local Facilitators became the core of the Caprivi for Women's Rights Project established by the Women's Leadership Centre in 2009.

Following this process of verification, we documented the research findings in English and Silozi in the booklet Violence is not our culture. Women claiming their rights in Caprivi Region, which was supported by the Caprivi Regional Governor and the four main traditional authorities. It was endorsed by 30 partner NGOs working in the fields of human rights, women's rights, HIV and Aids. The booklet was launched by the Regional Governor in March 2011 at the Second Regional Dialogue involving the field researchers and local facilitators, traditional leaders, representatives of local and regional government, staff of the Ministries of Health, Education, Safety and Security, Gender and Youth, as well as NGOs working in the region.

Breaking silences and taboos

The Local Facilitators were trained in using the booklet as an educational and advocacy tool. They have formed women's and young women's groups in their communities to educate women on their human rights and create safe spaces in which women can share their experiences and support one another in challenging and resisting practices that violate their rights.

They have further reached out and distributed the booklet to traditional leaders, pastors, nurses, police officers, staff of NGOs and Voluntary Counselling and Testing Centres. They held community dialogues, meetings with school girls and teachers, and shared the booklet with support groups, youth groups, political parties, disabled people, neighbours and friends.

The resonance and support for the contents of the booklet from all the various stakeholders has been overwhelming, not least from the traditional authorities, all of whom are men! The silences and taboos have been broken, and the voices of more and more women are ringing loud and clear: Hands off--it's my body! I am a human being with full human rights! Down with sikenge!


Interacting, exposing, and claiming citizenship

The Women's Leadership Centre recently conducted an evaluation visit to 5 of the 30 villages where educational and advocacy activities on women's rights and harmful cultural practices have taken place. These visits were followed by a regional evaluation and strategic planning meeting with all the Local Facilitators in Katima Mulilo. The words of the women participating in these meetings speak for themselves:

When we started talking about women's rights and harmful cultural practices it was very difficult for us at the beginning to change, because these practices were part of ourselves.

I will no longer force young girls to participate in sikenge because I now understand the consequences of such practices.

Together we dug out hidden practices such as malebe--we are the pioneers--we broke the silence with the women who did the research!

There is unsafe abortion for women, and many women in the villages do not even know what legal options they have. We have to work towards legalising abortion and thereby increasing women's choices.

Being part of the women's groups in our villages strengthens women and young women to be more open and honest in discussing matters that concern them. For example women are now talking openly about the wrongs of polygamy, or sikenge or widow cleansing. This I think has been the biggest success of this project--we broke the silence--the issue of harmful cultural practices has been exposed. Now we have to deal with it.

We were happy to interact with women from different ethnic groups and we learned so much from each other. We know now that we are facing the same problems.

My family's attitude towards me has changed. As women we were not recognised, especially in family meetings, to give ideas. But after conducting workshops in my village, elders in my family are also asking for my advice.

Men must accept that women have rights - by learning about women's rights they will be able to respect women and stop the cultural abuse.

The indunas said that all harmful cultural practices must be stopped and human rights and the Constitution of Namibia must be respected.

We were happy that as young women we were able to use our voices during the community and regional dialogues. As a young woman I am ready to claim my citizenship.

Through the Caprivi for Women's Rights Project, many women and young women have thus engaged in participatory research in their own communities, become knowledge producers, and are taking the lead as citizens in claiming the full human rights of all women.
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