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Regional Dialogue to prevent harmful cultural practices - 2019

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Transforming our culture

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Protecting women’s and girls’ rights on Impalila Island

Zambezi for Women’s Rights Programme


This programme focuses on developing a feminist critical analysis and leadership to challenge and transform harmful cultural practices in Zambezi Region, north-eastern Namibia. We work for the prevention of violence and high risk of HIV transmission through harmful cultural practices targeting girls and women throughout their life cycle. These practices include coerced initiation into ‘good womanhood’ (sikenge) that serves to teach girls to accept their ascribed gender roles as wives and daughters-in-law who are submissive and obedient to their elders, their future husbands, and their in-laws. “Respect” is the key cultural concept used to keep girls and women in these roles. Girls are also prepared to please men sexually through elongating their labia minora starting long before puberty, learning dry sex practices and accepting scarification, all of which expose girls and young women to pain, humiliation, violence as well as HIV and Aids.

Figures from the bi-annual sentinel surveys of the Ministry of Health and Social Services show that HIV prevalence among women aged between 25 and 49 tested in Katima Mulilo, Zambezi Region, ranged between 40% and 50% over the past 10 years, which is almost double the national average. Among the girls and young women aged 15 to 24, the HIV prevalence rate ranged between 20% and 24%, more than double the national average. The general prevalence rate for the population of Zambezi Region is 22.3%, compared to the national average of 12.6% (Namibia Population-based HIV Impact Assessment, 2017).


The objective of this programme is to strengthen feminist transformative leadership among women for the prevention/transformation of harmful cultural practices in Zambezi Region, and to hold duty bearers to account for the protection of the dignity and rights of girls and women in the region.


During 2019, our new programme officer Mimi Mwiya established an office for this programme in Katima Mulilo, the capital of Zambezi Region, and connected with the long-standing WLC regional coordinator Berithar Sitali and community leaders Patience Mutabelezi and Daphine Siyunda to lead the following activities: visits to the traditional authorities; radio shows in the local Silozi language; a regional TOT workshop for new community facilitators; a regional dialogue with government stakeholders in Katima Mulilo; local meetings facilitated by community leaders in their villages; a training workshop for DREAMS Mentors; and monitoring and evaluation meetings.


The programme officer visited the four main traditional authorities (TAs) in Zambezi Region: the Mafwe, Masubia, Mashi and Mayeyi TAs, to inform them of the increased presence of the WLC Zambezi for Women’s Rights programme through the appointment of staff and the opening of the WLC office in Katima Mulilo, as well as to let them know of our planned activities for the year. Over the past years our main activities were in villages under the Mafwe TA, which has been very supportive of our work. Through this activity we have now established our presence and gained support from the other TAs as well.


We managed to get a free weekly slot on the Silozi language service of NBC radio; Silozi is the lingua franca of Zambezi Region. Shows were initially pre-recorded, but when the recording equipment broke we were able to host a free one-hour live show per week in the evening, which had a call-in format so that listeners could engage with the issues. The WLC team used this platform to share their knowledge and experiences and engage the public on the prevention of harmful cultural practices, promoting a feminist analysis of the need to overcome patriarchal ideologies, values and privilege to protect the human rights of women and girls in Zambezi Region.

The radio shows reached over 8,000 listeners across Namibia, and were a really good platform for engaging with and getting feedback from the public. There was some slight antagonism, especially when we introduced the issue of harmful cultural practices, but the regional coordinator, particularly, handled those with ease. The NBC would usually have one or two male guests joining us, which made for lively discussion and debate. Feedback from the public was generally good, and indicated listener-ship from domestic workers, government officials, taxi drivers, women working at home and others, all telling us how they enjoyed the programme.
Mimi Mwiya, Programme Officer

I am from the Zambezi Region, but I live and work in Walvis Bay (Erongo Region), which is where I listen to NBC Silozi Radio service and I started hearing Mimi Mwiya and Berithar Sitali on it. At first I was taken aback by these women discussing taboo issues on air, they were talking to elder men who called in a way most people from home consider disrespectful. The more I listened however, I realised how important the programme was for the empowerment of the girl child. I think it is a very necessary and educative programme and I hope they return to radio and talk more about the harmful cultural practices in our communities.
Leroy Makhosi, Walvisbay

 Our regional coordinator was invited for a special programme on 10th December, International Human’s Rights Day and Namibia’s Women’s Day:

It was an incredible opportunity, also testament to how the Women’s Leadership Centre, through the Zambezi for Women’s Rights Programme, has established itself as a voice for human and women’s rights in the Zambezi Region.
Berithar Sitali, Regional Coordinator


In September the Zambezi team, joined by the programme officer for the WLC San Young Women’s programme, Nadia April from Windhoek, conducted a four-day regional training of trainers’ workshop in Katima Mulilo for 20 women leaders from 8 villages across Zambezi Region, involving all four main ethnic groups. The workshop was attended by both traditional and community leaders, and aimed to revitalise and broaden this programme in the region. The participants were recruited to become community leaders, joining Daphine Siyunda from Libula village and Patience Mutabelezi from Chinchimane village, who have been with this programme for many years and cofacilitated this workshop.

The workshop focused on developing a feminist critical analysis of harmful cultural pratices in Zambezi Region that subject girls and women to many forms of violence as well as high risk of HIV infection. It began with Daphine and Patience sharing their experiences with the WLC Zambezi for Women’s Rights Programme, and the work they have been doing over the years in their villages. We then introduced the Combating of Rape Act and Combating of Domestic Violence Act, and analysed how harmful cultural practices violate these laws. 

In small group discussions the women unpacked changes in their culture with regard to roles and responsibilities, and agreed that there is resistance to change in the position of women in culture, especially when it comes to sexuality and reproduction. Women still do not have much autonomy over their bodies and sexuality. Through the group conversations and presentations we realised that there is still a deep culture of silence that runs throughout the region with regard to practices that violate and oppress girls and women. This allows the practices to continue. Each village made a plan for organising and carrying out meetings with women in their community to break this silence. The women then prepared testimonies for the Regional Dialogue that followed the workshop.

In the beginning of the workshop, being from different parts of the region, the participants didn’t all agree on what constituted harmful practices and what didn’t. There was also contention and denialism about whether some of the practices brought up by some women really happened. However, it did not take long to have the women on the same page and by the Regional Dialogue on the last day of the workshop, the women were a unified force, agreeing that just because you have not experienced or do not hear of a certain practice in your area, it does not happen, and it is unfair to those who are victims to not have it spoken about.” 
Mimi Mwiya, Programme Officer

Evaluation meeting of the Womens Group in Chinchimane

Evaluation meeting of the Women’s Group in Chinchimane


On the last afternoon of the workshop, the WLC hosted a Regional Dialogue between the workshop participants and representatives of government and state agencies in Katima Mulilo. The keynote speaker at the event was the Special Advisor to the Governor of the Zambezi Region, Ignatius Nkunga. He commended the work of the WLC and encouraged everyone to be unified in the fight against harmful cultural practices. He also shared his own story of how, when his elder brother died, his family had wanted him to marry the widow, but he refused.

This opened a conversation on how harmful practices also affect men, but that it is easier for men to refuse when they are put in such situations than it is for women. One of the workshop participants, Peggy Tutalife from Choi village, gave a testimony about how when she was widowed, before they had even buried her husband, they hadalready picked out one of his relatives to ‘inherit’ her as a new wife.

A staff member from the Ministry of Health and Social Services also provided strong input into the dialogue:

I have been attending these WLC workshops and dialogues for some years now. I have witnessed them engage with local authorities, regional and national authorities, as well as girls and women on the prevention of harmful cultural practices. These workshops are very important and necessary, because some of our cultural practices expose our girls and women to diseases and violations of their rights. 
We come from a culture where it seems women, from a very young age, are taught and trained to be men’s property. We teach our young girls to live their lives for men, and wait on men to do things for them. The WLC workshops help shed light on these issues and their dangers. They also helped us encourage our girls to want to be accountable, competent and responsible young women. 
I see mothers looking at their ten-year-old daughters and already wanting to prepare them for sikenge, wondering if and when they will get married. We need to teach our girls and women that they do not need men to have fulfilled lives.
Herithar Chataa, Ministry of Health and Social Services, Katima Mulilo

This dialogue built support from regional government agencies for the work of the community leaders in their communities, and strengthened their resolve to take on this challenging work.


The community leaders trained at the TOT workshop conducted three local meetings with women, girls and community members in their villages, reaching altogether over 300 women and girls across the region.

We spoke to some of the new community leaders about their experience:

I became interested in the Zambezi for Women’s Rights Programme at the beginning of 2019 when Mimi had a women’s meeting at the Chinchimane head kuta (TA), and my experience has been really great. I feel empowered. I did not know much about our rights but now I am able to speak up for myself and ensure my rights are not being violated.
Malimbwe Mekalabi, Shaile village

I joined the programme in 2019 and it has been an enlightening experience for me. I have learnt so much about my rights, I can now stand up for myself and other women, despite what culture says.
Betty Mpango, Chinchimane village

My journey with the ZWR project has been very helpful. I am now aware of harmful issues within the community that I turned a blind eye to before. I am proud of the fact I can now help empower other women and I can speak comfortably in meetings.
Precious Mulauli, Choi Village


In October, the programme officer and the two long-standing community leaders, Daphine and Patience, travelled to Windhoek and spent a week visiting stakeholders at various government ministries and civil society organisations. They also spoke to the media. The objective of the advocacy visit was to strengthen efforts to put the urgent need to prevent harmful cultural practices in Zambezi Region on the national agenda and challenge the on-going denialism of the link between cultural practices that violate the dignity, well-being and rights of girls and women and the extremely high prevalence rate of HIV among women tested in the region.

This resulted in the WLC Zambezi Team becoming partners with and ambassadors for the Be Free campaign of the Office of the First Lady of Namibia, which is an initiative started by her office in collaboration with the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV-AIDS (UNAids) and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in an effort to play a role towards the educating of young minds on issues such as gender-based violence and others that affect the youth.

The Office of The First Lady also expressed keen interest in lending support in the form of either resources or collaboration with the activities of the WLC Zambezi for Women’s Rights programme. The Ministry of Education promised to consider including material on the prevention of harmful cultural practices in their Life Skills curriculum.

The Office of the Ombudsman, Namibia’s human rights watchdog, pledged support for our work - they had recently opened an office in Katima Mulilo, and also appointed a Children’s Rights Advocate in Windhoek, and encouraged us to collaborate through these channels. The WLC programme got good exposure in the media, with stories in two national newspapers (one Afrikaans, one English) as well as airplay on several national radio stations. 


The programme officer and one of the community leaders, Daphine Siyunda held a one-day training with some of the DREAMS mentors in Zambezi Region. The Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored & Safe (DREAMS) programme is funded through PEPFAR, and carried by Peace Corps volunteers. It works with girls and young women ages 9-24 and offers various services to participants, based on their age. A large part of their programme revolves around mentorship. DREAMS Mentors are women just a few years older than the girls they mentor so that they can be relatable to participants. Mentors play a crucial role in making DREAMS ‘safe spaces’ actually be safe, confidential and comfortable places where girls can be fully themselves and share openly.

The purpose of the workshop was to talk to mentors about harmful cultural practices in the Zambezi Region, as well as to explore ways in which they can include the prevention of harmful cultural practices in their programmes with their girl groups. We spoke about the importance of recognising women’s rights as basic human rights, and we provided the mentors with fact sheets on laws like the Combating of Domestic Violence Act, the Child Care and Protection Act, and the national policy on Gender-Based Violence.

Great, relevant information – I think it will really help the mentors to think about these topics, and also think about what messages they are passing on to their girls. Thanks to the WLC for making this happen!
Savanna McNichol, Peace Corps Volunteer, DREAMS Mentor Supervisor, Kanono Village

I think it was a very informative workshop and overall a success. I think bringing Daphine was a smart move, having multiple speakers retains attention and using herself as an example proved to be very powerful. I like that consistently through the day, Mimi made certain to distinguish between her opinion, fact, and law. She was careful to promote her ideals while maintaining the safe space for others to voice theirs, even in disagreement.
Jessica Jenkins, Peace Corps Volunteer, DREAMS Mentor Supervisor, Sibbinda Village


The Windhoek-based WLC Programme Officer for the San programme, Nadia April, travelled to Katima Mulilo in November 2019 to support the evaluation activities of the Zambezi programme team. They visited two villages, Chinchimane and Impalila Island, to evaluate the results of the women’s meetings and strengthen the work of WLC in the region by building personal relations. Each village had about 30 participants in their women’s groups. The programme’s volunteer Bernadette Mazila assisted with translations.

The Impalila group shared the different human and women’s rights they have learnt, especially the right to education and the Combating of Rape and Combating of Domestic Violence Acts. They are using these acts to analyse the initiation practice of sikenge, which can involve many forms of violence including beating and rape. The group questioned the relevance of sikenge in our society today.
Bernadette Mazila, Volunteer

Yet a number of women at the meetings regretted that practices like sikenge (initiation) were no longer happening in their villages, considering this to be a bad thing as women and girls were no longer “respectful” and for this reason they are no longer getting married. Although frustrating, this has helped open discussions on what it means for girls and women to be “respectful” in the cultural context, as well as how there is more to girls’ and women’s ambitions than being obedient wives and child-bearers.

What has been really encouraging has been the willingness of people, men and women alike, to engage with us, even when they do not agree with us. Most harmful practices thrive under the culture of silence and secrecy and all things “taboo” that is widely promoted in the Zambezi Region. Spreading the critical dialogue to not just the two villages we had remained active in but to many new villages with the new community leaders, and across the country with the radio shows, is great progress.
Mimi Mwiya, Programme Officer

The biggest achievement for 2019 was handing over the ownership of the Zambezi for Women’s Rights Programme to women in Zambezi Region through the appointment of the programme officer and recruitment of a volunteer, the establishment of the regional WLC office in Katima Mulilo, and recruiting a new cohort of community leaders to carry this programme into their villages. The many years of running this programme by outsiders from Windhoek are over.

Malilo Limbo from Muketela village giving feedback from group activities during the TOT workshop

Malilo Limbo from Muketela village giving feedback from group activities during the TOT workshop