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Representation Matters: The Road to Women’s Empowerment in Namibia

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ainsley Schoff
July 17, 2021

Criminal justice systems vary around the globe, but their effectiveness varies especially between urban and rural communities. To help standardize enforcement, customary justice systems (CJS), created during colonial times, were used to provide justice for marginalized communities unable to access justice systems through other means. In Namibia, CJS are well established and highly respected amongst the majority of the population, but are accompanied by challenges.

Formed in a patriarchal society, CJS historically have done a poor job protecting minorities, particularly women. They both have neglected women’s rights, as well as kept them out of the justice process. One of the most common offenses has been widow chasing/property grabbing, a practice whereby a widow is chased off her land following the death of her husband and forced to move back in with her matrilineal family. The only option to stay is to pay a fee to traditional elites. In the Traditional Authority Uukwambi kingdom (Uuukwambi) located in northern Namibia, CJS, the state and development organizations came together to try to mitigate this discrimination and improve women’s participation and representation in CJS.

The work toward women’s empowerment in northern Namibia began in 1993 when the customary elites in Uukwambi unanimously agreed to work toward gender equality and dismantling patriarchal norms. The work has been ongoing, with many stakeholders dedicated to increasing women’s role in the justice system. Key players include the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) who spearheaded the project and the Women’s Action for Development (WAD), a group focused on inclusivity that has community voice members from each constituency in northern Namibia. Customary elites and the Namibian government also are important to this effort. Unique to the CJS (compared to a state government), laws are unwritten and negotiable, providing necessary flexibility to change how women were treated within the system.

As a starting point when the work began, each village within Uukwambi was required to appoint a woman deputy chief. As women took on roles within the CJS, they also were appointed to various court and governing positions across communities. As official participation increased, so did the participation of ordinary female citizens. IDLO, WAD and the Traditional Authorities made a concerted effort to collect data across villages within Uukwambi. They conducted interviews, led focus group discussions and piloted surveys. This data collection also included valuable workshops for participants including legal literacy training, community mapping of local land rights and education campaigns and access to paralegals.

Looking for proof of success, the data speaks for itself: 72% of women surveyed felt they could actively participate given the head-women that worked in the customary courts. It also was found that traditional gender norms were evolving and becoming more inclusive. Since 1993, there has been a decline in widow chasing cases, one of the most explicit examples of gender discrimination coming out of CJS. Women feeling included and listened to meant they felt they had a role to play in community decisionmaking, empowering them to speak up and make their voices heard. This is a necessary condition for a functioning democracy, where all people governed are represented and included. Women in northern Namibia felt they could share their ideas, concerns, convictions and struggles now, and hopefully help work toward solutions.

This effort has had impact but its effects are localized. Regions outside of northern Namibia still struggle with gender discrimination (as do many communities across the globe). Collaborative stakeholders were critical to the project’s success because they secured buy-in from community leaders. Additionally, nongovernmental organizations played a large role with their ability to provide resources, training and lobbying efforts to influence legislation. Across marginalized communities, representation is an important starting point. People thrive seeing themselves reflected in power structures and positions as it elevates their idea of what they are capable of.

This model of representation and eventual participation could be used in any governing capacity and position of power throughout the community. In education, children benefit to see teachers that look like them. In media, sports, engineering and science fields, people believe they can participate when they see others like them represented. Northern Namibia was able to empower women over the last 30 years and it all began with appointments of women in power.

To learn more about this case, visit https://participedia.net/case/6908. To read about other innovative applications of public participation, visit www.participedia.net.


Author: Ainsley Schoff is pursuing a Master’s degree in Public Administration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. She is passionate about economics, public policy, agriculture and the environment, and how harnessing data can help solve the world’s problems. Before her studies she spent years managing large-scale farms in New Zealand. She obtained her undergraduate degree from George Washington University and can be reached at: [email protected].

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