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Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women reviews the situation of women in Namibia

Committee on Elimination of Discrimination
against Women

14 July 2015

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women today considered the combined fourth and fifth periodic reports of Namibia on its implementation of the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Doreen Sioka, Minister of Gender Equality and Child Welfare of Namibia, presenting the report, said that there was no harm in promoting positive cultural traditional practices whilst at the same discouraging and criminalising harmful practices.  Since the submission of the current report, the Government had revised the 1997 National Gender Policy and it now had a new National Gender Policy 2010-2020 with 12 areas of focus.  In order to effectively coordinate its implementation, the National Coordination Mechanism had been created.  For the first time in its history, Namibia had seen an increased number of women elected to Parliament in November 2014; their percentage now stood at 47 per cent.  The Namibian Cabinet consisted of 25 Ministers, seven of whom were females, including the Prime Minister. The Government continued to be concerned about gender-based violence as one of the most prevalent human rights violations.  The revised zero tolerance media campaign on gender-based violence had been launched in 2015.

Committee Experts praised the high proportion of women in the Namibian Parliament and the Cabinet, but noted that more work remained to be done in that regard; questions were asked about the so-called “zebra system”.  Women’s representation in the judiciary and managerial positions in the private sector was also discussed, along with possible affirmative action and special temporary measures which could be undertaken.  Particular attention was given to the persistence of some harmful traditional practices and possible ways to address those issues.  Other issues raised by Experts included combatting trafficking in persons, measures in place to prevent and punish gender-based violence, access of women, particularly rural women, to justice and free legal aid, divorce legislation, status of HIV-positive persons and birth registrations.  Committee Experts also asked about drop-out rates of girls.

In concluding remarks, Ms. Sioka said that she was happy to see the interest shown by the Committee.  Questions asked and recommendations provided were well received; the delegation would report back with positive results.  Ms. Sioka said she would continue to work on women’s rights regardless of the position she occupied.  The interactive exchange was beneficial, and the delegation was grateful for all the input provided.

The delegation of Namibia included representatives of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare, Ministry of Health and Social Services, Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture, and the Permanent Mission of Namibia to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will next meet on Monday, 20 July, at 10 a.m., when it will discuss the combined fourth to eighth periodic reports of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (CEDAW/C/VCT/4-8).

Report

The combined fourth to fifth periodic reports of Namibia can be read here: CEDAW/C/NAM/4-5.

Presentation of the Report

DOREEN SIOKA, Minister of Gender Equality and Child Welfare, stressed that Namibia was committed to defending human rights and protecting human dignity as provided for in the Namibian Constitution.  The Constitution provided that both the customary law and the common law of Namibia in force on the date of independence should remain valid to the extent that they were not in conflict with the Constitution or other statutory laws.  While the people practiced many positive cultural habits as part of their heritage and identity, the State party acknowledged outdated and harmful cultural practices that continued within their society.  There was no harm in promoting positive cultural practices whilst at the same time discouraging and criminalising harmful practices.

Namibia was facing a challenge in the law reform process due to high staff turnover and the increasing number of bills and research papers that were not finalized on time.  Since the submission of the current report, the Government had revised the 1997 National Gender Policy and now had a new National Gender Policy 2010-2020 with 12 areas of focus.  In order to effectively coordinate its implementation, the National Coordination Mechanism had been created. 

For the first time in its history, Namibia had seen an increased number of women elected to Parliament in November 2014; their percentage now stood at 47 per cent.  The Namibian Cabinet consisted of 25 Ministers, 7 of whom were females, including the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister.  A seminar had been organized for the women elected in the Parliament, themed “Enhancing the effective participation of women parliamentarians in Namibian politics”, whose goal was to coach and mentor women in leadership and decision making, and inform women parliamentarians about basic gender concepts and gender mainstreaming. 

The Government continued to be concerned about gender-based violence as one of the most prevalent human rights violations in Namibia.  The revised zero tolerance media campaign on gender-based violence had been launched in July 2015.  Another initiative was a special programme to sensitize men on gender-based violence and its effects on the society.  Meetings were held country wide for men and by men in order to advocate respect for the rights and dignity of women. 

The National Conference on Education in 2011 had adopted a resolution to realize free and compulsory primary education.  Today, Namibia’s children attended primary school free of charge.  The Government had also taken a bold step to offer tuition-free secondary education and abolish dormitory fees at primary and secondary levels.  Life skills teachers had been adopted in schools; that subject touched on many aspects, including gender and sex, respect for each other, risky sexual behaviour, responsible parenthood, date rape, violence, and many others.  It had been realized that there was a need to create a culture of respect, inclusivity, care and support in Namibia’s schools.  The Government was working, together with UNICEF, on developing a National Safe School Framework with strategies that could inform inclusive, caring and supportive practices to enhance school safety of learners and their physical, social and emotional well-being.  Issues such as harassment, aggression, violence and bullying would be addressed under the national framework. 

Namibia was looking forward to an interactive deliberation and guidance towards the protection of women and girls by eliminating all forms of discrimination.

Articles 1 and 2: Defining Discrimination and Obligations of States Parties

Questions from the Experts

An Expert praised Namibia’s progress in the increase of female parliamentarians and the appointment of the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister.  She expressed concern over the lack of appropriate legislation to prohibit discrimination against women.  Why had the important bills on marriage, divorce, inheritance and other matters not yet been enacted?

What was being done to raise awareness of the Convention among other stakeholders and the population at large?  Was the Convention being invoked in courts? 

In order to guarantee women’s access to justice across the country, were there plans to establish mobile courts, including in rural areas?   Was there a plan to specify gender and sexual orientation as grounds for discrimination?

Another Expert asked for more details about the National Coordination Mechanism, and who was implementing and taking responsibility for the National Gender Policy.

Questions were asked about shelters for victims of violence.

Responses by the Delegation

On the issue of law reform, the delegation said that it was a very long process, especially on family and social matters.  It raised numerous questions within communities.  A Child Care Protection Act had been passed by the Parliament and signed by the President.  Extensive consultations needed to take place given the deeply seeded customary laws; such consultations were still underway on customary marriage.  Divorce and marital property bills were currently being further discussed.  Divorce was expensive, and the Government was trying to ensure that women had access to justice in any case.

In 1999, a case had been heard by the Supreme Court, in which the Convention had been invoked.

A delegate explained that judges moved to different regions to ensure that they attended to cases there.  It was believed that justice delayed was justice denied.  Victims of violence could be heard in special courts where they could not be humiliated or hurt.  The Government was doing its best to create an enabling environment and ensure gender equality was implemented across the board for the benefit of all citizens.

Thanks to the Coordination Mechanism, budgetary needs of all actors were clearly specified.  Namibia recently attended the African Union Summit, which had focused on gender equality, the delegation added.

Follow-up Questions

An Expert asked about the involvement of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare in the law reform process.  Was there a calendar in mind?  Was it only laws relating to women that were being pushed back? 

How about the absence of the HIV status as a prohibited ground for discrimination?

Another Expert inquired about the lack of cases coming from Namibia under the Optional Protocol.

Responses by the Delegation

The delegation said that in the context of the independent Namibia, the issue of violence against women had dominated the agenda.  Laws themselves were not a panacea for all issues faced by women; making sure they were implemented was of paramount importance.  The drafting process was taking a lot of time, due to the limited capacities and hundreds of bills to be drafted and passed.

The amount of time and money spent on divorce processes had been lowered through court-led mediation.  It provided alternative means for resolving issues which could not always be resolved through litigation.

In 1990, the year of Namibia’s independence, the Bill of Rights had played a central role.

Namibia was one of the first countries to have abolished the ban for HIV-positive persons entering its territory.  Close to 90 per cent of HIV-positive Namibians were on the antiretroviral treatment.

The Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare was the key body in charge of the gender equality agenda, but it was working closely with a number of stakeholders.  All Ministries had strategic plans, and on an annual basis they agreed on programmes to be implemented.  The Ministry was trained to help all other Ministries take gender perspective into account when budgeting.

Legal aid could be provided based on the income level; it was not only for criminal cases, but also for divorce cases.  The Government was providing lawyers to those who could not afford it even in cases when it was being sued.

The delegation informed that the Convention had been translated and simplified in local languages which people understood.  Universities carried out training on different laws in place; they also had legal aid clinics.

Articles 3 and 4: Appropriate Measures and Temporary Special Measures to Combat Discrimination

Questions from the Experts

An Expert raised the issue of statutory quotas, health policies and services and education. What was the State doing to stop coerced sterilization of women with HIV/AIDS, and to enforce quotas to reach parity of men and women in all areas of political and social life? 

What temporary measures were being taken to protect girls immediately?

Responses by the Delegation

The subject called “life skills” included gender equality and mutual respect.  Namibian girls were taught how to develop self-esteem and self-reliance.  Retention rates of girls in schools were given significant attention.  The children’s parliament brought together young Namibians on an annual basis; equal representation of boys and girls was ensured.

People who had been unequal for years could not be made equal by a simple stroke of a pen.  Affirmative action had been introduced immediately after independence, when Namibia had inherited a white male dominated public service.  The purpose of the affirmative action was to include and give a chance to those previously excluded, either because of their race or gender.  Special measures were thus firmly incorporated in the Namibian legislation.
Out of 104 Members of Parliament, 47 were female; some 30 out of 100 Ambassadors were female.  Affirmative action was applicable across the board, the delegation said.

Focusing on maternal health was pushing women to the forefront of the medical care services.  Namibia was a signatory to a number of continental documents protecting the rights of mothers, HIV-positive people and other vulnerable groups.  Some negative attitudes by health workers towards pregnant women were still taking place, but there was no tolerance for that.

Articles 5 and 6: Modifying Social and Cultural Patterns and Suppressing Exploitation of Women

Questions from the Experts

The opinions of men on sex and gender roles were deeply rooted in Namibia, an Expert noted.  What measures were being envisioned to change such existing stereotypes, prejudiced to women’s empowerment?  What were the conclusions of the study conducted on that subject matter?

Harmful practices, such as early marriage, still seemed to be prevalent.  How did the traditional religious authorities view sexual violence?

What resources did the Government have to combat gender-based violence?  Was there trained staff to deal with practices deemed harmful to women?  Had there been a decline in the number of cases of women victims of domestic violence withdrawing their complaints?  Were perpetrators regularly punished?

An Expert noted that trafficking in persons was one of the 12 areas of focus in the National Gender Policy.  How was the State party currently dealing with the identification of victims? The existing designated place of protection for victims was reportedly understaffed and under-capacitated – what was the State party doing about that?

Responses by the Delegation

The bill on human trafficking was in the final stages before being submitted to the cabinet and then to Parliament, the delegation explained.  The State party was strongly committed to addressing that issue fully and comprehensively.

Two studies on human trafficking had been conducted.  A conducive human rights environment was being ensured at border crossings.  Trafficking existed in many forms and public awareness was being raised across the country, including, for example, in churches on Sundays.

The Government was putting in place legislation on community courts and traditional practices.  Harmful practices carried out in local communities could not and would not be tolerated; they were considered unlawful if conflicting with the Constitution and the written laws.  It was a long-lasting process which required engagement with local traditional authorities, who were made aware that they should not conduct practices contrary to the Constitution.  Awareness raising campaigns played a very important role in that regard.

There was a national action plan to combat gender-based violence; an interim review had been conducted in 2014, and new steps had been suggested concerning school curricula, the legal system and public awareness campaigns.  Another national conference on the subject should also be held.  The area of research and data collection needed further financing with the view of better addressing the issue of gender-based violence.  At the moment, because of the existing challenges, the State party could not provide updated statistics.

Follow-up Questions

An Expert asked whether the State party would consider adopting a national action plan on the implementation of the Committee’s concluding observations.

Was research being conducted on harmful traditional practices? How were older women being engaged?

Why were the victims of violence withdrawing their complaints, an Expert inquired?

Responses by the Delegation

Namibia would work on the implementation of the Committee’s concluding observations, the delegation said.

Increasing the prosecution rate in cases of domestic violence could help decrease the number of withdrawn complaints.  Men were also encouraged to come out and submit complaints on gender-based violence.  Victim-friendly courts had been introduced.

No research on harmful traditional practices had yet been conducted by the Ministry, but that was planned.  The importance of traditional knowledge was acknowledged, and an intergenerational discussion on culture needed to take place.  A local university had carried out a study on the traditional roles of women in various ethnic groups.  Channels of communication were open with traditional leaders.

Articles 7 to 9: Equality in Political and Public Life at the National and International Levels and Equality in Nationality Laws

Questions from the Experts

An Expert asked about ways to make the policy on gender balance obligatory for political parties.  There were no female judges on the Supreme Court.  What were the plans to increase the number of females in the judiciary system?  Were there plans to improve the percentage of women Ambassadors?

Another Expert raised the issue of registration at birth, which was sometimes delayed because of the absence of fathers.  Could the delegation provide data on that issue? 

Responses by the Delegation

The delegation explained the process of increasing female representation in Parliament.  The constitution of the ruling party Swapo had been amended.  Before the next elections, all political parties needed to amend their internal rules according to the so-called “zebra principle”. In the November 2015 local and regional elections, with the “zebra lists”, 50-50 parity could be achieved.

In the private sector, women still tended to occupy lower positions.  More efforts should be made to collect statistics from the private sector, and promote affirmative action there.

The Government’s policy was that either one of the parents could register the child, but the child would then need to be registered with that parent’s name.  Because of social standards, mothers rarely registered children under their names. 

It was hoped that with time there would be more female judges, which was something supported by the State party.

Follow-up Questions

Concrete actions towards increasing the number of female judges had to be promoted.  Women, for example, could be encouraged to study law.  Were special temporary measures planned to promote a higher number of female judges and Ambassadors?

How large was the problem of delayed birth registration and what was the average delay?

Responses by the Delegation

Concrete steps to increase female representation as judges, Ambassadors and managers in the private sector should indeed be taken, the delegation said.  The focus thus far had been more on women in politics and decision-making. 

If there was an objection to the registration of a child, the absentee party had the right to raise it.

Articles 10 to 14: Equality in Education, in Employment and Labour Rights, and in Access to Health Facilities, Finance and Social Security, and Rural Women

Questions from the Experts

An Expert asked whether the State party was thinking of temporary special measures in education, so that more girls were encouraged to go into, for example, engineering.  How was it ensured that girls who left school could get decent employment?

There was a lack of disaggregated data by sex, the Expert noted.

Corporal punishment reportedly still continued.  What were the current trends, in urban and rural areas, how was the monitoring done, and what sanctions were imposed?

Life skills education should include proper age-appropriate lessons on sexuality, the Expert said.

The Committee was concerned that unemployment in Namibia disproportionately affected women, especially young women, another Expert stated.  There seemed to be a problem with the State party’s definition of the work of equal value.  How could victims of sexual harassment at work access justice, and could some examples in that regard be provided?  

The Expert asked if the State party was considering extending the three-month maternity leave.

Maternal mortality was raised by another Expert, who asked for concrete information on what the State party was doing to address the existing high rates. 

What comprehensive strategic measures were in place or envisioned to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic? In that context, the alleged cases of coerced sterilization of HIV-positive women was also raised.

An Expert asked about social protection measures for women below the poverty line.  How was that issue being mainstreamed?

More information was sought about access of women to bank loans and other financial services.

More than half of the population depended on agriculture, particularly subsistence agriculture.  Empowering rural women was paramount for achieving de facto gender equality.

Responses by the Delegation

Responding to the questions on education, the delegation said that rates of girls’ enrolment were higher than those of boys.  Namibia had been doing better with keeping girls in school than boys.  There was some opposition to promoting mathematics and science classes among all pupils. There were definitely challenges with attracting girls to certain fields.

On life skills education, the delegation stated that sexual education was included, and appropriately adjusted to the age of pupils.

Early pregnancies were a matter of concern.  The policy that a girl had to take a year off had been done away with.  The learner could stay at school up to four weeks before delivery and could return when physically fit and there was someone to look after the baby.  Currently, boys-fathers were no longer forced to leave the school.  The issue of pregnancy was still not something openly discussed in African cultures.  In 2013, 1,553 pregnancies had been recorded in Namibian schools; real rates could be higher as some pregnancies went unreported. 

Corporal punishment was a criminal offence, but it was still admittedly taking place in Namibian schools.  The Ministry of Education was addressing that issue.

The unemployment of youth, particularly young women, was a significant challenge all over Africa, the delegation said.  There was no strong private sector in Namibia; the public service was the main employer.  Should more young people be encouraged to enter universities or to go into vocational training so that they could employ themselves? 

There was a code on sexual harassment, but most of those cases were not reported.  If there were no women-friendly work places, most women would be afraid of reporting harassment. 

The delegation said that maternity leave was allowed after 12 months of continuous service.  Maternity leave was given for four weeks before and eight weeks after the delivery. 

A campaign for decreasing maternal mortality rates had been conducted; Namibia was committed to it, but the shortage of doctors and nurses in such a territorially vast country was a serious obstacle; training more medical doctors should help.  The goal of Namibia was to bring to zero maternal mortality; at the moment, it stood at around 200 per 100,000 births. 

A former First Lady of Namibia had been personally engaged in the prevention of the mother-to-child HIV transmission.  The dual objective was saving both the child and the mother.  Namibia had used its own budget to reduce HIV rates; most of the infected had access to antiretroviral treatment.

On forced sterilization, the Supreme Court had condemned the fact that three women had been sterilized without their consent, which had been a wake-up call.  The Ministry of Health would issue guidelines on how to address the matter in the future. 

Namibia did not allow abortion, except for prescribed circumstances, but even then it could be very cumbersome and include consent of three medical doctors.  Illegal abortions were taking place in Namibia, which led to higher rates of maternal mortality.  Several years after independence, the issue of abortion had been debated.  Abortion was not an alternative to family planning. 

Not many Namibian nationals owned land; it was mostly owned by foreigners.  If the land was given back to its rightful owners, women could be given some of it and be empowered.  Perhaps international organizations could help Namibia in that regard, the delegation commented.

The delegation stressed that the Government was encouraging family members to stop grabbing land from widows.  The law existed and was clear, but there were problems with the implementation, which lay with other Ministries.  Land grabbing was a criminal act and had to be dealt with as such.

The Social Security Commission was currently organising a conference on social protection.  Women empowerment issues would be included in the agenda.

Before the Married Persons Equality Act, women could not have received loans or registered business in their names.  Following the adoption of the Act, loans were made possible, but were defined as a liability on the joint estate.  The surviving spouse inherited the right to occupy and work the land; the right was passed on to their children.  There was no data on how many women had had access to loans.

Articles 15 and 16: Equality in Legal and Civil Matters and in Family Law

Questions from the Experts

An Expert asked how the State party was addressing the issue of fake marriages, and providing protection to women.

Namibia had a very modern divorce bill, the Expert noted.  What protection was there for women and children living in informal unions/cohabitation?

The Convention provided for the same rights of both spouses.  It was a matter of concern that flexible land tenure discriminated against couples not married or those in customary marriages.  Were there any plans to explicitly allow land registration to either or both partners?

Responses by the Delegation

Regarding customary and civil law marriages, the Ministry of Justice was conducting consultations, which were taking time because of different beliefs.  Whether customary marriage was in line with the Constitution was one of the questions to be answered. 

Traditional leaders had been sensitized on will writing and were now spreading the message among their fellow countrymen, the delegation said.

The issue of cohabitation was also on the table.  Some were asking what the purpose of marriage was if cohabitating couples had the same rights.  Namibia believed in the principle of community participation in preparing laws.

The delegation said that there was no doubt that all the discussed bills would help improve the status of women in Namibia. It was hoped that all the Ministries would come together to push forward all the bills necessary to provide the protection expected by the women of Namibia.

Regarding the minimum age of marriage, the delegation said that it had been set to 18 years of age.

Concluding Remarks

DOREEN SIOKA, Minister of Gender Equality and Child Welfare, said that she was happy to see the interest shown by the Committee.  Questions asked and recommendations provided were well received; the delegation would report back with positive results.  Issues concerning women would always remain close to Ms. Sioka’s heart and she said she would continue to work for women’s rights regardless of the position she occupied.  The interactive exchange was beneficial, and the delegation was grateful for all the input provided.

YOKO HAYASHI, Committee Chairwoman, thanked the delegation for the constructive dialogue, which had provided further insight in the situation of women’s rights in Namibia.  The State party was encouraged to take all measures to implement the Committee’s concluding observations, which would be transmitted to the State party via its Permanent Mission.

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