Over several years, Namibia has been rocked by ever-escalating gender-based violence (GBV) horror stories reported in the media, witnessed personally or ‘known’ in our communities and families.
Each time we read about or see a tragedy involving yet another woman abused, terrorised or killed by her partner, family member, husband or other trusted figure in her life, we think it can’t get any worse until it does.
The Windhoek Observer (WO) stood in shock at the recent death of Alina Kakehongo (24), who was shot in the head at her place of work in Windhoek by her ex-boyfriend, a police officer about whom the victim had complained to the authorities repeatedly.
The disheartened Namibian public is in need of guidance on what to think, what’s going on, what’s being done, why is this happening, and what to do about this spate of torment that is threatening the very fabric of our society.
In the midst of this perfect storm of escalating GBV and economic recession, the measured, informed and determined voice of the First Lady of Namibia, Madam Monica Geingos (FLMG), peels out loudly above the confusion and noise and offers some guidance.
WO: Tell us about the work the Office of the First Lady is doing with regard to gender-based violence.
FLMG: Our busiest pillar is that of gender-based violence. We’ve aligned our financial and human resources to provide tangible services in this space. As we like to be practical, we provide both individual and institutional support. We take an approach of only assisting where we can make a structural difference in the lives of the person we seek to assist.
We also recognise the trauma and capacity building required in first responders and we do assist with trauma debriefs for police officers and others. We have provided specialised training for over 500 social workers, police officers, life skills teachers, church leaders and health extension workers on the topics of gender-based violence.
We have also engaged on issues related to cyber bullying, child protection, dealing with vulnerable witnesses, effective court preparation, sexual health and reproductive right, relevant legislation and case management.
In order to make our services available to vulnerable Namibians as well as government institutions, we provide all of our training, therapeutic, and psycho-social support services for free, thanks to the generosity of those who donate to the One Economy Foundation.
An additional angle we apply is integrating our GBV pillar with our entrepreneurship pillar. We actively seek opportunities to ensure the economic emancipation of those we assist.
We believe economic empowerment reduces the experience of violence, particularly of women, as it ensures less financial vulnerability within an abusive relationship. Money is a major source of conflict in relationships and often acts as a trigger for violence, for different reasons.
Lastly, our focus on help-seeking behaviour compels us to guide those we assist with access to appropriate and effective services. Access to services is a complex topic and we try our best to ensure that those who make the decision to report are not exposed to secondary trauma or delays in processing life-threatening cases.
We are particularly concerned with high levels of intimate partner violence as these crimes are notoriously under-reported and many perpetrators extend their violation, harassment and harm of women and children beyond their immediate households.
Violence in the home is a precondition for more visible violence in the public sphere such as stranger rapes, assaults on adolescents and young people as well as sexual harassment in the workplace.
We will never change attitudes that perpetuate violence in the public sphere if we don’t resolve the problematic mind sets that are being engendered in the home. This is why we have such a strong youth focus which integrates parents and all those who deal with children. This is done through the #BeFree platforms which we hope to scale up in the coming year.
We have so many specific interventions we would not be able to mention them all in this article. Our core belief is that violence is learned behaviour and therefore, with the right focus, can be unlearned.
WO: In your experience, what age group is affected the most by GBV?
FLMG: The reality is that we have generally high levels of societal violence of which men are the biggest victims. Said differently, a man in Namibia is statistically more likely to be killed or assaulted by another man.
Society, however, has good reason to be outraged at GBV as it targets the physically, emotionally and financially vulnerable. While men and boys are also victims of GBV, the statistics indicate that over 90 percent of GBV cases are perpetrated by men. This is why our programs focus on male engagement as men are the primary victims of violence in general and the primary perpetrators of GBV.
If we were to drill down into the age group most affected by GBV, our experience indicates that adolescent girls and young women between the ages of 15 and 35 are particularly vulnerable to GBV, particularly intimate partner violence.
This usually includes varying combinations of physical, psychological, verbal, sexual and economic abuse, which is often accompanied by threats, trespassing and intimidation.
The statistics also show an increase in sexual violence with the victims’ ages ranging from infants to elderly women. Young boys are also increasingly exposed to sexual violence and cases of elderly abuse (male and female) are also reported in the regions, mostly perpetrated by children, grandchildren and close family members.
WO: A lot has been said about GBV being directly linked to socio-economic conditions in the country, is that true?
FLMG: We have certainly seen an increase in GBV fuelled by high levels of economic stress and financial uncertainty. There is sufficient global research to corroborate our view that the hidden cost of any economic recession is an increase in gender-based violence, depression, suicide and substance abuse.
Gender-based violence is, however, a complex issue which manifests due to a combination of social, behavioural, cultural and economic reasons. Gender-based violence is thus multi-dimensional and calls for a multi-faceted response. Any group which is denied equal economic rights, access to public space and resources makes that group vulnerable to violence.
This is why we encourage a zero discrimination approach that does not judge or vilify specific groups like the LGBTIQ community or sex workers. We also encourage an approach that seeks to divert individuals who are at high risk of perpetrating or experiencing violence.
While we have seen effective programs in correctional facilities, we are eager to see diversion programs where individuals who exhibit red flags and those susceptible to their violence are provided access to the necessary psycho-social services before threats of violence are carried out.
The research undertaken by our office revealed some valuable insights into the mind sets of men who perpetrate violence. We saw a clear connection with men who were unable to provide for their families and their use of violence to assert themselves.
The research also found that men respond to female breadwinners negatively, which is underpinned by problematic discourse around women empowerment with uncertainty and attempt to maintain their hold on dominant forms of masculinity through the perpetration of violence.
Some of the perpetrators we engaged also expressed fear of rejection if they were to stop being able to provide. These fears in turn support a tendency of believing that women enter relationships for financial gain and will leave if a man is unable to maintain a certain financial standing.
This is a widespread mindset and we wish to caution against accepting accusations (proven or fabricated) of cheating, “chopping” of money or disrespect, as justifications for violence or murder.
We must engender a society that understands that regardless of the reason, there is nothing that justifies killing an intimate partner or using violence against them. We must engage in more constructive forms of communication because violence is a form of communicating rage, powerlessness, low self-esteem and negative emotions.
Toxic masculinity has to be addressed in conjunction with other issues such as fatherlessness and the lack of male role models.
I would not want to remove the agency of women nor negate the wrongs we are also guilty of, so my approach is really to address the issue without favour or judgement.
Part of addressing this is cautioning against basing your view on whether violence was justified based on who the victim or perpetrator is. Violence is wrong and is not defendable, regardless who the victim is and how well we know the perpetrator.
Any society which is characterised by high levels of inequality will reap the burden of high levels of societal dysfunction. This is why we must focus on redressing our macro-economic policies to ensure a more equitable economic order.
Violence in safe spaces entrenches structural inequality for women and their inability to break free from factors which inhibit their full enjoyment of their economic, political and social rights.
Our last ask is that our developmental agenda must include the funding of social infrastructure which understands the importance of providing help towards those who struggle with mental health, substance abuse, untreated trauma and dysfunctional families.
WO: There is a perception that those who are well-off do not experience GBV. Is this true?
FLMG: This is a myth. GBV and general violence is experienced and perpetrated across racial, ethnic and economic lines. This type of perception feeds into the stigma that protects prominent people from being reported and shames their victims into silence as they fear being regarded as troublemakers.
While more and more people are reporting cases of GBV, our concern is that there remains significant under-reporting from the “well-off” and powerful as influential perpetrators appear to be shielded from the consequences of their conduct.
We have experienced numerous cases where victims are eager to be linked to psycho-social and shelter services, but are reluctant to lay charges due to fear of reporting the perpetrator or concern that the financial assistance from the perpetrator would be compromised should he or she be jailed or angered.
We must break this conspiracy of silence. We must ensure that any person, whether a sex worker, a member of the LGBTIQ community, a well-known Namibian or an unknown Namibian is provided the same level of access to services and justice. We simply cannot afford a stigmatised, judgemental or selective response to this crisis.
WO: Have you spoken to any perpetrators of GBV? What do they say, what’s the cause?
FLMG: We have a specific focus on perpetrators and work very closely with them. Many have approached us after they are released and have accessed our entrepreneurial support and funding pillars. Others assist us as volunteers and we truly commend the commitment of those who have made the important decision to change their lives.
We also undertook research in the Correctional Facilities which indicated that the majority of perpetrators were themselves victims of violence. Their use of violence was inextricably linked to their experience of violence in safe spaces such as the home or school.
Many of our key findings from the research inform our interventions and echo findings in several studies with perpetrators, namely: Gender norms are rigid in nature and promote toxic masculinity; lack of parental involvement, particularly fatherlessness, has a devastating impact on children, particularly boys; dysfunctional homes and unhappy couples who choose to stay together and torment one another damage children’s perceptions of right and wrong. When the children escape actual abuse, they were often not protected from harm by third parties or they are often traumatised by what they have witnessed.
Other factors are inter-generational experiences and consequences of violence, including untreated childhood trauma; lack of conflict resolution skills and ability to control emotions; perpetrators reported feeling judged and not being able to receive the mental health services they needed or when they seek help, their cases are often not regarded as serious enough as most intervention is only given when they are an immediate and clear danger to others. OF GBV
Risk factors for being a perpetrator include past history of violence, no or poor education, exposure to child maltreatment or witnessing violence in the family, harmful use of substances, attitudes accepting of violence and gender inequality, anti-social personality disorder, infidelity or suspicion thereof, marital discord, difficulty in communicating between partners and lack of conflict resolution skills between partners and male sexual entitlement.
WO: Have you spoken to any victims of GBV? What do they say, what’s the cause?
FLMG: Our research also focused on victims/survivors and they too have provided valuable insights on the various root causes. We regard the families of perpetrators and victims/survivors as key to our interventions as they often suffer long-term consequences due to the experiences or actions of their loved ones.
Long after the newspaper headlines cease, families are expected to deal with the emotional trauma, financial loss and the rumours on their own. We therefore extend the description of survivors of violence to include family, friends and colleagues who often experience and live the horror of GBV together with the victim or perpetrator and whose trauma is rarely acknowledged or treated.
Please read the Windhoek Observer next week (August 17th edition) for the final part of this outstanding and informative dialogue with The First Lady of Namibia, Monica Geingos, on the critical topical and important issue of gender-based violence, what you can do, what is going on, and what lessons must be learned.
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