Africa, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

NAMIBIA: Gender Legislation Futile If Not Implemented

Moses Magadza

WINDHOEK, Mar 30 2009 (IPS) - Namibian women’s rights activists say existing gender legislation has failed to improve women’s lives because it is not being implemented widely enough. Last August, Namibia signed the Southern African Development Community (SADC) gender protocol but politicians have yet to ratify it.

Lucy Edwards, a feminist activist and sociology lecturer at the University of Namibia in Windhoek, says government needs to put laws into practice, especially with regard to women’s reproductive rights and maternal mortality.

"I would like to see laws that infringe on the reproductive rights of women either repealed or reformed," she explained. "To give an example, under Namibian law, abortion is outlawed, except in special circumstances, such as rape. This has led to unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, baby dumping and infanticide."

In April 2008, officials at Gammams Water Treatment Works in Windhoek said they discovered an average of 13 bodies of newborn babies each month among human waste flushed down toilets, which indicates that illegal abortions are rampant.

Edwards highlighted the fact that legislation is only effective if it is accompanied with financial support and strategies for implementation. "Law reform should be backed by budgetary allocation to support implementation and structural changes in various sectors," she explained.

She also calls for policies aimed at ending women’s economic dependence on men, arguing that "women need to be supported in income-generating ventures".

Michael Conteh, coordinator of the HIV and gender programme at the University of Namibia, says the country’s gender-related legislation, such as the Domestic Violence Act, has not yet led to "concrete changes" in the lives of women. He wants to see speedy implementation of gender policies in Namibia and the region, suggesting one way to make this happen is to create more awareness on gender issues among both men and women.

"Consider gender violence. We have a very good law [to prevent it], but gender-based violence persists. A police report on gender-based violence of 2007 [released in 2008] shows that there were more than 12,500 such cases. It is imagined that not all cases are reported," he said, so numbers should even be higher.

Economic dependence

According to police statistics, reported cases include indecent assault, attempted rape, grievous bodily harm, murder and rape. More than 10,500 Namibians – of a population of less than two million – reported grievous bodily harm in 2007 alone, and more than a thousand cases of rape were reported. More than 300 women were murdered.

Rachel Coomer, public outreach officer at the Legal Assistance Centre, says notwithstanding progressive legislation, Namibian women "have a lot to mourn about".

"There are still a lot of problems. Even hearing about one case of rape is tragic. There were 1,100 cases of rape, and a third of those involve people below the age of 18. Acquaintance rapes, involving partners and relatives, are high," she said.

Kudzai Makombe, Gender Advisor at SADC Parliamentary Forum (PF), points out that Namibia is not the only SADC country that has failed to ratify the protocol – the most binding of SADC legal instruments – so far. In fact, not a single country in the region has legally approved it.

However, as a first step towards ratification, Namibia is currently translating aspects of the SADC gender protocol into two local languages to make it more accessible to the public.

It is hoped that the gender protocol will expedite the process of achieving gender equality and equity in the region, improve the status of women and foster women’s empowerment. It contains specific targets and timeframes to ensure accountability and transparency.

The protocol addresses a wide range of gender-related issues, such as inequalities in constitutional and legal rights, governance, education and training, productive resources and employment, gender-based violence, health, HIV/AIDS, peace building and conflict resolution as well as media, information and communication.

Delayed ratification

Despite the delay, gender activists like Edwards say Namibia has generally enacted "progressive legislation championed largely by [former president] Sam Nujoma".

For example, progressive legislative interventions have included the Child Care and Protection Bill, Combating of Rape Act of 2000, Domestic Violence Act, Married Persons Equality Act of 1996, Maintenance Act of 2003 and the Children’s Status Act of 2006, which was enacted in 2008.

The Combating of Rape Act in particular has contributed to the empowerment of women because it has given them legal support in reporting cases of sexual abuse and violence, says Coomer.

"Under the old law, in case of rape, a court could delve into [the plaintiff’s] sexual history, for instance, which is not relevant [to the case]. It does not matter if you had sex with your husband before. He can still rape you. The new law has liberated women as they can now report rape without the fear of being interrogated about their sexual history in court," she explained.

Other positive examples of the country’s women’s rights supporting legislation are the Combating of Domestic Violence Act, under which abused women can ask for a protection order or a formal warning of the perpetrator, as well as the Married Person’s Equality Act, which establishes that men and women are equal in relationships – a law that reduced the marital powers of men.

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