A history of violence

27 October 2020 | Social Issues

Windhoek • Jana-Mari Smith

Namibia’s grim epidemic of violence against women could be partly traced to decades of violent oppression by colonial and apartheid forces and traditions that favour the oppression of women in some African cultures.
A 2016 study by professor Lucy Edwards-Jauch from the Department of Sociology at the University of Namibia, titled “Gender-based violence and masculinity in Namibia: A structuralist framing of the debate”, includes a compelling link to Namibia's past and today's high rate of violence against women in Namibia.
Edwards-Jauch concludes in her study that “men are not born violent, nor are they inherently violent. The social structure produces violent masculinities. To resolve issues of gender-based violence one would have to confront structural violence in Namibia.”
The study at the time highlighted the high rate of gender-based violence cases recorded in Namibia at the town, which amounted to around women 45 cases reported daily.
“In Namibia, the most recent reports indicate that 50 000 crimes related to GBV were reported to police stations around the country between 2012 and 2015. This averages out to about 45 cases per day. Many crimes go unreported and it is mainly assaults, rapes and murders that are reported, therefore it is likely to underestimate the actual number of incidents.”
In the wake of the recent #ShutItDown protests, the police last week revealed that close to 6 000 GBV cases were reported nationally during the year since last September, amounting to an average of 16 cases reported to the police daily.

Dark legacy
Edwards-Jauch’s 2016 study takes an in-depth look at the impact of Namibia’s violent colonial and apartheid-era history, the struggle to obtain independence as well as cultural practices that promote gender inequality as key drivers of a violent nation that could partly underpin the high rates of GBV in Namibia.
Namibia’s “violent history of colonialism has left its mark on society”, she writes.
Moreover, “traditional forms of African patriarchy converge to justify women’s subordination, gender inequality and different dimensions of violence against women”.
To effectively address this inherent promotion of violence against the vulnerable, the study recommends that serious efforts should be made to focus on the broader social structures and societal norms that lead to violence. She stresses that there is a need for a dismantling of structures that “constantly reaffirm gender inequality”.
Edwards-Jauch argues further that traditional practices that subjugate women need to be critically engaged with. “Although part of the decolonisation process is to reassert African cultural and knowledge systems, our democracy dispensation of gender-equality should compel us to deconstruct African culture as well and to critically engage with its patriarchal tendencies. The challenge is not to reject African culture, but to engender it.”

Studies indicate as many as one in three, or 32%, of Namibian women are exposed to “some form of physical violence. Married women and those with less education are likelier victims of violence than single women.”
The GBV and masculinity study underlines that during Namibia’s pre-independence systems, violence became an “integral part of the lives of the dominant and subjugated groups.”
The study reminds readers that “where there is oppression there is also resistance”, the study reminds readers.
Namibians were subjected to the loss of valuable assets such as land and additionally, sexual violence was rife on both sides at various times. “Colonial dispossession laid the foundations for decades of inequality and wealth concentration primarily in white hands,” the study notes. Dispossession of land and other assets spurred on competition and promoted inter-ethnic conflicts.
Sexual violence was wielded to subjugate indigenous women, who were “raped, abducted, forcibly removed to other areas of the territory, and murdered”.
Both South African forces and the liberation movement committed atrocities against civilians and women. Often rape was not taken seriously or acknowledged as a violent crime and normalised as “part of life”.
The study notes that a racist assumption remains that that the perpetrators of gender-based violence are primarily, if not exclusively, black. However, there is sufficient evidence that violence by white men against women is under-researched, and there could be widespread.

The decolonisation process, aimed at reclaiming an African identity separate from colonial oppression, “led to uncritical acceptance or denial of African patriarchy,” the report states.
“Namibia is still faced with the problem of early and forced marriages that continue to negatively impact on the girl-child. Disproportionally, high school drop-out rates amongst girls are mainly as a result of early marriages, teenage pregnancies, hunger and poverty.”
Traditional practices such as widow inheritance, virginity and sexual testing, beatings and degrading treatment during female initiation ceremonies reinforce gender inequality and gender-based violence, Edwards-Jauch notes.
The study underlines that interpersonal violence can arise as an expression of powerlessness among certain oppressed groups of men experience in society.
And, despite rising education levels and a growing labour force, economic imbalances persist between men and women today.
“The key to understanding structural and direct gender-based violence is the relative economic inequality of women in relation to men and the unequal distribution of economic power.”
She notes the gender equality is crucial to violence prevention.