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Harmful cultural practices and beliefs for women

in NAMIBIA, 12/12/2005

Women’s Leadership Centre Namibia Press Statement

Breaking the silence around harmful cultural practices and beliefs

As women and young women of Namibia we are very proud of those aspects of our various cultures and traditions that are caring and supportive. Many a times when you are in trouble you can rely on extended family members to support you and care about you. However, there are harmful cultural practices and belief amongst our people in our various ethnic groups in Namibia that are deadly and which are putting women and young women at risk of HIV and AIDS. It is to these that we want to address ourselves today. Our cultures and traditions contain unconstitutional aspects that sustain and promote inequalities between women and men. While HIV/AIDS is wrecking havoc amongst our people it is also giving us the opportunity to address issues of inequalities and oppression that fuel the pandemic. The issues that we want to discuss today are the outcomes of three workshops on Women and HIV/AIDS in Namibia that have been organized by the Women’s Leadership Centre.

Different forms of ‘marriage’ are dangerous and deadly for women and young women
Child marriages that put girls and young women at risk of HIV/AIDS are still rampant in some communities in Namibia. This practice must be eradicated from our society in order to protect all our children.

Arranged marriages and forced marriages for young women are also a common practice in some communities in Namibia. Young women are given away to uncles and cousins, usually men who are much older then themselves. Young women in these communities do not have a choice; parents and other clan members decide to whom they will be given into marriage. This is done in order to keep the wealth in the extended family. This harmful practice violates young women’s rights to choice and freedom of association, and puts them at risk of HIV and AIDS.

Other forms of forced marriage take place when a woman is forced to marry her deceased sister’s husband, or when a widow is forced to marry her brother-in-law or another relative of her deceased husband; again to keep the wealth within the extended family.

In all the above cases women and young women do not have any say in the issues surrounding their right to live, they are used and traded like objects, not treated like equal human beings. And as long as these forms of forced marriages persist, Namibian women cannot protect themselves from HIV and AIDS.

Without marriage a woman is nothing in her community
Young women and women are taught that marriage is the only way through which a female can gain status in the community. Marriage is considered to be a “safe haven” where people are supposedly faithful to each other. However, in Namibia one group of women who are severely affected by HIV and AIDS are young married women. In some cases marriage can be a death trap. We have to educate our young girls that marriage is an option, a choice and not a must, and that both as single and as married women they have sexual rights, ie the right not to be raped, the right to choose contraceptive methods and the right to demand the use of condoms by their partner or husband.

Without a child a woman is nothing in her community
Women have to prove their fertility at all costs in many communities in Namibia. Men pressurize women to have children, and women bow to the pressure in the hope that the father of their child will marry them. The pressure to have a child is so great that women who are living with HIV and who already have children become pregnant to prove that they are not ill and to prove their womanhood. We have to educate our young girls that becoming pregnant means risking HIV infection through unprotected. To have a child is an option, a choice, not a must, and adoption of children is another option. .

Sexual violations of women and girls
Incest and sexual abuse of girl children by brothers and other males in the family still continue unabated in many Namibian families. There is a culture of silence around this issue. People will often not bring out the dirty linen of the family in the open and so protect the perpetrators.

In some communities in Namibia, sexual cleansing rituals are enforced. After the death of a husband, a widow has to be cleansed by having sexual intercourse with a man chosen by the family. If she refuses she is accused of bringing bad luck to the family. It has happened that women have become pregnant and contracting HIV through this practice, which fuels the AIDS pandemic.

The practice of ‘dry sex’, in which women use herbs to dry out the vagina and thereby enhance the sexual pleasure of men, leads to the tearing of the wall of vagina and exposes women further to infection with HIV.

Silence and obedience enforced by culture put women at risk of HIV/AIDS
A ‘good marriageable woman’ is believed to be silent, obedient and shy. Our girls are raised not to challenge and demand but to obey. This is further reinforced by different religions that teach women to obey their husbands at all costs. What is a Namibian women’s chance to survive the HIV/AIDS pandemic? Discussions of sex are seen as dirty and taboo and men are seen as the ones who are supposed to take the initiative in sexual matters. How can women and young women confront boys and men in such situations? Moreover, divorce is out of question for many women, who have to endure domestic violence, including the violation of becoming infected by a promiscuous husband ‘until death do us part.’

Practices of worshipping men and enslaving women
In some communities women have to kneel before husbands and other males, for example when they are serving them food. We call this practice ‘enforced worshipping of men and enslavement of women’. There is a need to debate the consequences of this practice and the effect that it has on women and girls in terms of their dignity, humanity and equality.

Celebration of malehood through promiscuity puts women at risk
Many Namibian cultures accept, encourage and celebrate men’s promiscuity. The belief is that the more women a man has had sex with, the more popular and manly he is. To have multiple relationships is seen as a man’s right. To be in a polygamous relationship is seen as a man’s right. The slogan “be faithful”is thus not working for thousands of Namibian couples. We need new messages of manhood that celebrate and nurture life, not death.

Traditional healing
Some traditional healers ‘treat’ women and young women through having sexual intercourse with them to ‘cure’ infertility and back pains.

Whole families have been wiped out through the use of the same razor blade on everyone.

Some traditional healers encourage men to sleep with babies and virginal young girls to cure themselves from HIV/AIDS.

Recommendations
We are requesting our government to undertake comprehensive research on harmful cultural practices and beliefs in all the Namibian ethnic groups to break the silence and the condoning of these practices and beliefs. We need laws to ban these practices in order for women and girls in Namibia not only to enjoy their dignity, rights and freedoms as human beings, but as a matter of sheer survival in face of the Aids pandemic.

We call on the Ministry of Education to mainstream women’s rights and gender equality into all aspects of the curriculum, and implement gender policies in schools and other institutions of learning in order to save lives of young women and girls.

We call on all the churches in Namibia to stop teachings of male worshipping in which total obedience to male power is enforced through marriage vows. We call on the churches to teach a religion of equality that will save lives.

We call on all young women and girls in Namibia to take our own lives into our own hands, to know that we are full human beings with full human dignity and rights. Our own lives and our right to live must become the first priority before anything else. To look after ourselves well we have to learn to become strong, independent and selfish.

Press statement issued at a workshop on “Women, Writing and HIV/Aids” - 24 November 2005

Women’s Leadership Centre
email: ncwl@mweb.com.na
PO Box 90675, Windhoek
Namibia

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