Rising demands for action against gender-based violence

Outraged gender rights groups in Namibia have urged authorities to take decisive action against the perpetrators of a recent spate of violent attacks against women and children.

Juanita Mabula, 21, a single mother and commercial sex worker, was found naked and beheaded nearly three weeks ago along a main road in Windhoek West, a suburb of the capital, Windhoek.

Her murder came six months after a six-year-old girl was raped and killed in another gruesome attack.

Mabula's death sparked demonstrations in the capital as protestors demanded tougher action from the police to protect women and children against violence.

"Gender-based violence is undermining everything we have achieved as an independent country," said one petition handed over to Prime Minister Nahas Angula.

Angula acknowledged that violence against women and children had reached a "crisis point", and reiterated the need for specific laws outlawing violence against women.

He pointed to an incident three years ago in the coastal town of Swakopmund in which a woman, Monika Florin, was murdered by her husband, who later cooked her remains.

"Both Monika and Juanita were women and their fate was determined by men," Angula pointed out. "[Depriving someone] of life is the most flagrant violation of women's rights and of our Constitution."

Namibia, among other countries in southern Africa, has gone to great lengths to promote legislation ensuring gender equality: it has enacted the Married Persons Equality Act, the Combating of Rape Act and the Domestic Violence Bill, a progressive piece of legislation that seeks to outlaw domestic violence.

The government has also shown its commitment to combating abuse of women and children by establishing a Women and Law Committee in the Law Reform and Development Commission (LRDC) to focus on legislation that discriminates against women.

A number of protocols for police, prosecutors and magistrates have accompanied these bills. Despite these advances, women's rights groups continue to complain that not enough is being done on a practical level.

"The gender order, where men dominate women, appears in many communities to remain unaffected by the various reforms, and violence against women continues unabated," said Veronica de Klerk, executive director of Women's Action for Development, an empowerment organisation.

"When our lawmakers pass these laws ... people are not taking them seriously. The biggest sinners are the men in those political parties who also don't want to change," she alleged.

Earlier this year former president Sam Nujoma suspended Supreme Court Judge Pio Teek, who is facing charges of rape, attempted rape, indecent assault, kidnapping and supplying liquor to minors.

Namibia is bound by the provisions of the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which requires all signatory states to "commit themselves to undertake a series of measures to end discrimination against women in all forms".

"Our patriarchal societies teach us that girls are soft and boys are strong, and that there is nothing wrong with being beaten up by your husband or partner. We can start changing that attitude by sending very clear signals that violence against women is not acceptable," said Sarry Xoagus-Eises of the Namibia Media Women's Association.

With 80 percent to 85 percent of the country's nearly two million people reportedly affiliated to a faith-based institution, there have been recommendations that churches or traditional leaders be called upon to raise awareness of gender rights.

"The church can be a catalyst for changes in attitude and behaviour. The Bible is very clear about building peaceful, loving relationships," said Rev. Angela Veii, coordinator of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) National Committee in Namibia.

She added that the church could act as a platform of solidarity for victims, to encourage women to protest against the violence they experienced at home or elsewhere.