Producing Shadow Reports

Beijing+5 and Women's Human Rights

Links of Interest

Contacting IWRAW



    Country Reports


First report dated 10 February, 1997

The US Department of Commerce, in its 1997 Country Commercial Guide, considers Namibia "a good candidate for investment and future growth." Citing, among other things, the government's record of fiscal discipline, its commitment to an open market economy, excellent infrastructure and the deep water port of Walvis Bay, the Guide notes that, despite its limitations, "Namibia is well-positioned to become a gateway for foreign firms hoping to enter the growing regional market of Southern Africa."1 Unfortunately, while Namibia's natural resources -- diamonds, uranium, natural gas and oil, rich south Atlantic fishing grounds and rare ecosystems -- have made it possible for international capital to realise vast profits, nearly half of the existing workforce is unemployed.2

At independence in 1990, the new SWAPO (South West Africa People's Organisation) government faced some difficult policy decisions. Its major natural resources did not promise greatly expanded employment opportunities, nor did the other productive sectors. Local manufacturing, which was almost completely undeveloped at independence, would not provide any quick solutions. Although the government has made diversification of the economy one of the centrepieces of its development strategy, about eighty-five percent of the country's imported goods still come from South Africa.3 Although nearly seventy percent of the population, either directly or indirectly, depends on subsistence farming, Namibia has relatively little arable land and is highly susceptible to drought, so there is only modest potential for increased employment in agriculture.

Given these limitations, the SWAPO government has adopted policies that would encourage outside investment. It has been very conservative in its economic policies, including the very pressing issue of land reform.4 The best agricultural land is still in the hands of a small (4,500 by one estimate)5 group of mainly white farmers, despite the fact that Namibia, along with South Africa and Zimbabwe, share the distinction of having the worst disparities in land ownership in southern Africa.6

Thus, while Namibia has impressed the world as a "market-oriented democracy" and a "model of peaceful transition in Africa,"7 change has been very slow for the impoverished majority of the population. Although annual GDP growth since independence has exceeded the country's 3.5 percent annual population increase, the rural poor, who are the bulk of the population, remain poor, and income disparities between them and the mainly urban white minority and black professional class are thought to have widened since independence.8

Clearly, the prevailing economic argument holds that global conditions preclude the government from adopting a more generous, social welfare approach. Nonetheless, extremes of inequality brought about by colonial exploitation and apartheid social engineering persist in Namibia, and could threaten the stability of the new state. In 1995 there were demonstrations on the streets of Windhoek by unemployed ex-combatants, who complained that the government had done nothing since independence to help them find employment and reintegrate into the society. While these demonstrations did not pose a threat to national security, they are one suggestion that the overwhelming support SWAPO enjoyed at independence among most constituencies may be eroding.

Export Processing Zones (EPZs)

Currently the central coastal region of Namibia is being developed as an economic growth point, with Walvis Bay as the principle location for an EPZ. The EPZ Act passed in April 1995 provides significant incentives to investors. The government initially proposed that EPZs be exempted from the provisions of the country's labour laws, but the trade unions opposed this, and in early 1996 it accepted a compromise in which both strikes and employee lockouts are banned, but other labour regulations apply. An initial seven projects were granted EPZ status at the beginning of 1996.9

During his recent visit to Namibia in February 1997, US Vice President Al Gore discussed opportunities for US companies to invest in Namibia's new EPZs.10 There is concern by the ILO, some SADC (Southern Africa Development Community) officials and others that SADC countries, such as Namibia, may join "the EPZ rush" in the expectation of great gains, only to sacrifice achieving trade integration in southern Africa -- which would mean greater long-term benefits to a wider cross-section of the country's population -- and at the same time, in its attempts to attract foreign investors, end up sacrificing the development of a better-paid, more skilled workforce. (Women worldwide have formed the majority of the lowest paid workers in the EPZs.11 ) The most significant investment in Namibia's EPZ occurred very recently with the opening of a German-owned manufacturing plant. EPZ policy is said to be central to Namibia's 1996-2000 National Development Plan.12


After thirty years of liberation struggle, at independence the new SWAPO government enjoyed a political and moral ascendancy, all the greater because South Africa was still in the hands of the white supremacist government that had administered the former South West Africa as a colony. However, political analysts and others agree that the inner politics of SWAPO's liberation movement have always been hierarchical and authoritarian, and that "some of the same arrogance of power that scarred the liberation movement during the independence struggle remains, and hovers on the edge of the Namibian polity."13

The Journalists Association of Namibia expressed concern recently at the increasing intolerance of government officials toward freedom of expression, including calls for restricting this right and for attacks on the integrity of journalists.14 Namibia has thus far been known for its diverse and opinionated press which freely criticises the government. Recent verbal attacks on homosexuals by President Nujoma, and seconded by others in SWAPO, have been decried by NGOs as another indication that SWAPO's "arrogance of power" may pose a threat to Namibia's rapidly growing civil society.

Another worrisome example of what some go so far as to call "an insidious....strategy" is President Nujoma's stated intention to stand for a third term as President, despite the fact that Namibia's Constitution, adopted at independence by national consensus, specifies that a president may hold office for only two five year terms. A SWAPO council called on President Nujoma in March 1997 to serve as president "as long as he was medically fit." Africa News reports that the SWAPO congress later in 1997 is expected to endorse this proposal, making it possible for the party to use its parliamentary majority to push through a constitutional amendment. The possibility of yet another "president for life" in the region has alarmed the political opposition and Western diplomats.15

Nujoma's announcement was apparently made without consulting other leading figures in SWAPO. Observers say that despite the concerns of some SWAPO leaders, they may be constrained to go along with the proposed constitutional change, in order to avoid a fight over the succession. There is also concern to avoid reviving ethnic tensions within the party that have been, sometimes with difficulty, kept under control.16

[The following brief report was written by the Sister Namibia Collective and then passed around to a number of women from other Namibian NGOs, whose comments were included. IWRAW has edited only for clarity.]

By and large we are subscribing to the Namibian Government report as submitted for consideration to the CEDAW Committee. The government report was drafted with great care and detail by a local NGO, the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC), subcontracted by the Department of Women's Affairs and was later workshopped with a good number of NGOs. What is lacking is the ongoing monitoring of progress made concerning CEDAW by local NGOs. No one NGO can do this task in all the areas concerned. Also, there is a lack of resources to do this kind of work continuously. Nevertheless, we feel that our views on the situation of women in the country were considered in the drafting of the report.

However, there have been new developments since the writing of this report which we briefly wish to outline.

  1. Homosexuality has become a topic in public debate in Namibia since the President's anti-gay remarks at a congress of the SWAPO Women's Council in December 1996. He denied democratic rights to Namibian gays and lesbians, claiming that they were "exploiting our democracy" and have a bad influence on our children. Therefore, they have to be condemned and rejected in our society. His remarks were later supported by State House and the spokesperson of SWAPO. The attacks came despite the fact that discrimination is prohibited in the Constitution and that in the Labour Code reference is made specifically to non-discrimination as regards sexual orientation. As a result, many homosexuals fear for their democratic rights and have decided to form an alliance, together with family members, friends and those concerned about the general democratic climate in the country. Sister Namibia Collective has initiated and supported much of its activities since. The organisation in its mission statement commits itself, among other things, to the elimination of homophobia as one issue that divides women.

    President Nujoma has renewed his attack on gays and lesbians, warning them to refrain from imposing homosexuality on wider society, during the recent opening of a SWAPO Youth League Congress.

  2. After lengthy preparations and nationwide hearings, the Married Persons Equality Act was enacted in July 1996. It abolishes marital power [sic], gives equal property rights to women married in community of property, equal guardianship over children to both parents and provides for independent domicile of spouses.

    Although this is an important improvement, it seems to have positive effects mainly for women in marriages which are economically better off, where there is a bank account and property to share. Many women even from urban areas are not yet aware of their new rights, and some of those who are, feel that nothing is going to improve for them if their husbands don't want it. Even the police are unsure of what is now illegal, and in how far they can assist women if the husband removes 'his part' of the joint estate. So far there has been no court case that has interpreted the Act in a questionable case. All this illustrates the problem that one cannot merely legislate changes in attitude. They need to be addressed in more than one way, particularly through education.

  3. In the area of women's access to and control over land, developments right after independence looked promising. Since the 1991 National Land Conference, several resolutions were passed to treat women equally in the process of land reform. The Married Persons Equality Act opened up new ways for women married under Civil Law to own land. Equality is one of the fundamental principles of the outline for a National Land Policy released in May 1996. According to this policy, women have the same status as men with regard to all forms of land rights, be it as individuals or family members. It also states that every widow or widower can keep the land rights he or she had while the spouse was alive. Special attention is paid to the representation of women and other underprivileged groups on regional and local land boards.

    Then, in September last year, the Ministry of Lands, Resettlement and Rehabilitation released a draft Communal Land Bill which does not have any reference to gender or special provisions for women. Contrary to the Land Policy, the Bill limits land boards to one per region. Looking at the highly insufficient representation of women on other regional bodies, it is clear how little women will be able to influence land distribution done by regional land boards.

  4. The struggle against violence against women had several highlights in the past year. A multi-media campaign to address the issue was launched and is coordinated by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. A number of NGOs participated with specific activities for which they received financial assistance from the American Embassy. Among others, educational materials were developed as well as regional workshops, exhibitions and self-defence coursed organised.

    The Law Reform and Development Commission held countrywide hearings where evidence was heard from survivors of violence, family members and friends, nurses and social workers, counsellors and the police. Attitudes of communities, police and courts came under scrutiny. The aim of this project is to raise awareness of the problems in communities, activate them and initiate law reform in this area.

    The beginning of 1996 saw women increasingly criticise the work of the Women and Child Abuse Centres of the police. An NGO working with battered women complained of problems with referrals as well as about the unsympathetic treatment of survivors. A woman police inspector from England was here as an adviser to the police on the work of the centres. In 1994 she identified grave shortcomings and made recommendations. On her return two years later, nothing had improved in terms of structure, staffing, training and motivation; a sign that little priority had been given to the issue.

  5. Another effort to liberalise pre-independence laws and bring them in line with the Namibian Constitution is the 1996 draft Abortion and Sterilisation Bill which was released by the Ministry of Health and Social Services in June last year. If passed, the restrictions on abortion of the old South African law will be replaced with abortion on demand during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy. The public had two months to submit comments on the draft bill to the Ministry. And this was the last that was heard of it. Last November a Pro-Choice Alliance was formed by individuals and organisations supporting the draft bill. Shortly afterwards, there was a cabinet reshuffle which also affected the Ministry of Health. When approaching the new Minister concerning progress on the bill, the Alliance was told that the Minister was still familiarising herself with her new portfolio and would only be able to pay attention to the Abortion Bill during the second half of 1997. This indicates that the Bill is not a priority at this point in time. In the meantime, women are resorting to neighbouring South Africa, where a new progressive law is in place. Some South African government facilities, as well as four Marie Stopes Clinics, provide abortion services, the latter for a fee of about N$600 (approximately US$130). The places abortion again out of reach for poor women.

  6. The Department of Women's Affairs (DWA) in the Office of the President was also affected by the cabinet reshuffle. The former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs became the new Director General of an upgraded DWA. The Director General has a ministerial rank and a seat in Parliament. The placing of regional gender officers is in the pipeline.

    In the past the Department rendered financial support to about 170 women's projects throughout the country, but without having the capacity to monitor progress. An evaluation of women's projects was done in 1996. This year, however, the Department has received no money for projects. Other concepts for providing funding for smaller projects like the Women in Development Trust Fund (referred to in the government report, Part 1, page 8) are still not operational.

  7. A positive development in the area of women in decision-making was the appointment of the first woman in the post of Ombudsperson in December 1996. She intends to restructure the operations in her office to ensure that those who were disadvantaged would not only find a forum for complaints against public officials, but also a source of redress in terms of the Constitution. With this it is expected that more women will seek assistance from the Ombudsman's office (as it is still officially called.)

  8. 1996 saw the establishment of a caucus of women parliamentarians which is now seeking contact with local NGOs and women's organisations in particular. Women MPs promised to supply legal expertise for women who want to introduce their own private persons bills. A suggestion box was also established. If this communication channel is being used effectively, it can lead to an effective representation of women's views and needs in Parliament.

  9. The NGO Preparatory Committee which was established for the Beijing Conference is currently preparing for the implementation of an Affirmative Action Project for the Girl Child. The project aims to prepare young women to take over the leadership of the women's movement in Namibia and to reduce the discrepancy between men and women in key positions in the country.


1 Country Commercial Guide -- Namibia, Fiscal year 1997, US Department of Commerce, on-line. back

2 Namibia's Liberation Struggle: The Two-Edged Sword, Colin Leys and John S. Saul, James Curry, London, 1995. back

3 U.S. Department of Commerce back

4 Leys and Saul back

5 Africa Review, World of Information, Quest Economics Digest, Janet Matthews Information Services, February 1997, on-line. back

6 InterPress Service, 22 April, 1997, on-line. back

7 Leys and Saul. back

8 Quest Economics Digest. back

9 Quest Economics Digest. back

10 BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, BBC, 17 February, 1997, on-line. back

11 "EPZs Versus Integration," Gumisai Mutume, Inter Press Service, 19 July, 1996, on-line. back

12 "Namibia Export Zone Programme Moves Forward," Johannes Dell, Reuters Financial Service, Reuters Ltd., 25 November, 1996. back

13 Leys and Saul, pg. 203. back

14 "Journalists Express Concern At Government; Intolerance," Media Institute of Southern Africa, Africa News, Africa News Service, Inc., 13 May, 1997, on-line. back

15 Africa News, Africa News Service, Inc., 11 April, 1997, on-line. back

16 Africa News. back





© COPYRIGHT 2003 All materials on this web site copyright of International Women's Rights Action Watch, Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, USA.