Let’s talk about women.
In 2018, Namibia ranked 129th out of 189 countries with a Gender Inequality Index value of .472. The UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index indicates how highly women are disadvantaged in three dimensions: reproductive health, empowerment, and economic status. By contrast, Canada ranked 12th with a value of .092. What does this mean for women in Namibia? They are more vulnerable to social exclusion and poverty. They have higher unemployment rates, lower-paying jobs, and face considerable discrimination.
During a cab ride in October, the male driver (so generously) shared with me his belief that women shouldn’t go to the gym. His reasoning? We are meant to be weak so that men can beat us if we step out of line. Now, I was aware that gender-based violence is a problem in Namibia, but it was shocking to hear this cab driver’s sentiments offered up so freely. I’ve thought of several clever responses since that interaction, but in reality, my neurons didn’t fire fast enough to say anything at all. It likely wouldn’t have mattered.
I’ve also witnessed more subtle attitudes about gender norms during my time here. At a seminar I attended on women leadership, a male presenter declared his support for equality in the workplace. However, he added that women must remain subservient to their male partners, since men are the de facto leaders of the household. I found this troubling. How can women ever expect to be considered equal in the workplace if they are immediately demoted after 5pm? These are the types of cultural and social norms that play a role in preventing women from progressing and participating fully within a society.
It should come to no surprise that as part of its focus on reaching marginalized populations, many of UNDP Namibia’s programmes target women. Furthermore, UNDP Namibia funds research to generate national debate and dialogue around policies required to accelerate the reduction of gender inequality.
Last month, I received a request to observe a workshop hosted by Women’s Action for Development (WAD), as the organization received funding from The United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF). The theme of the workshop was “Promoting Women’s Rights and Gender Equality in Political Representation in Namibia.” The facilitators presented on such topics as a political overview of Namibia and its electoral system, the need for women participation in political representation, and the basis for gender equality. Attendees were encouraged to ask questions and contribute to group discussions throughout the day. Overall, the workshop was attended by 52 individuals eager to learn about how they can act to support equality in Namibian politics.
At the end of the day, participants were encouraged to join WAD’s “50/50 Club.” Members of the club are tasked with promoting women candidates and spreading knowledge about equal representation within their communities. All of the workshop participants enthusiastically volunteered. It was heartening to witness this small-scale initiative generate such a positive response.
While these community-level interventions are so important in advancing equality in politics, Namibia is already a leader in this regard. Women represent 46% of the Namibian National Assembly. Only 5 countries within the Southern African Development Community have exceeded 30% women in local government (Namibia, Lesotho, Mozambique, South Africa, and Tanzania). These figures are miles ahead of Canada, with its current Parliament containing only 26% female representation.
As one last point, I feel I must say that I am truly fortunate to work with the brilliant women here at UNDP Namibia. You might be interested to know that women make up 90% of the staff in my office. I have never worked somewhere with such a female-dominated gender breakdown, excluding a brief restaurant stint in my teenage years. The daily collaboration with this team fuels my optimism that this country, despite its shortcomings, is headed in the right direction.