Documenting LGBT Discrimination in Namibia

Chivuli Ukwimi was a program officer in the IGLHRC Africa Program at the time of this training. He is now a sexual diversity consultant working with LGBT groups in southern Africa.

As part of its commitment to helping to strengthen human rights movements internationally IGLHRC has been involved in trainings for community members, activists and allies at the country level. In the latest training IGLHRC partnered with Outright Namibia, an organization working for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) human rights in Namibia, to develop and execute a two-day training at their offices in Windhoek in February. In 2010 IGLHRC conducted a similar workshop with activists in Zambia.

Participants at IGLHRC and OutRight Namibia's Training

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Namibians live and work in difficult circumstances. Sodomy remains illegal in Namibia and rather than fulfilling its duty to protect LGBT people, the government has helped fuel anti-LGBT violence. In 1996, former President Sam Nujoma stated at the opening of a SWAPO (ruling party) Women’s Congress that, “Homosexuals must be condemned and rejected in our society." In a 2001 speech at the University of Namibia, his attacks went further. Nujoma said, “The Republic of Namibia does not allow homosexuality [or] lesbianism here. Police are ordered to arrest you and deport you and imprison you." To this day, the Namibian LGBTI community experiences widespread social exclusion and rejection. As one member of the community told us, “When we walk down the street, people call us names. One transwoman was even beaten by seven people but the police dismissed the case as a general attack and not a hate crime.”

Although for many years, there was a strong LGBT movement in Namibia responding to such attacks, a gap formed as the organizations then leading the movement folded or shifted their focus. In response, community members and activists came together in March 2010 to form Outright Namibia (ORN) - headquartered in Windhoek with a network of regional leaders and support groups. As the one-year organization works to rebuild the LGBT movement in Namibia, ORN decided to partner with IGLHRC in designing and delivering a two-day training focused on human rights documentation. ORN and Executive Director Linda Baumann rightly reasoned that if they have strong documentation about what LGBT people experience in their daily lives, they will be in a better position to understand those challenges and identify avenues for change.

The training finally occurred February 19th and 20th and was attended by twenty-five people including seven LGBT community facilitators from around Namibia, thirteen LGBT activists from Windhoek, and five allies from other organizations. Organizations represented included Positive Vibes, an HIV/AIDS organization, the Legal Assistance Centre, a public interest law firm, and the Namibian Planned Parenthood, a sexual health services provider. The agenda, designed to take account of the specific context of Namibia, covered LGBT rights in Namibia and the challenges faced by defenders of those rights before moving on to particular skills training.

Participants at the training
The training began by examining the current state of LGBT rights in Namibia. Unfortunately the sodomy law, essentially a Roman-Dutch law imposed when Namibia was under South African rule, has been in existence since 1927 and was strengthened in 1980 by the “Combating of Immoral Practices Act.” Sadly even where progressive, rights-affirming law was on the books this has been removed. This was the case with the Labor Act that had contained a prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation – in 2004, Namibia moved backwards by removing this reference. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the training participants were critical of the legal framework.

Participants were then given an opportunity to learn about the mainstream human rights provisions of Namibian law and to understand more about the application of fundamental rights. The session revealed how unaware many community members were about their basic rights and how to assert those rights. One participant, a community facilitator from outside of Windhoek, shared her strategy: she memorized the parts of Namibian law that apply most directly to her as a transwoman. When police harass her, she is prepared. This prompted a discussion about the importance of knowing your rights, which the Legal Assistance Centre helped move forward by showing up the next day with pocket-sized versions of the Namibian Constitution. These conversations also made apparent that many human rights violations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity had happened to the people in the room, however very few had been reported. People shared their stories of surviving violence, police misconduct, denial of health care and discrimination in schools. Everyone agreed that the lack of documentation made it difficult to seek justice and redress.

The bulk of the training focused on understanding the value of human rights documentation and understanding how to do it well. The training participants chose to focus on the practical application of documentation in four pressing areas: violence, police misconduct, substance use, and oppressive norms and values. The participants split into small groups to develop documentation tools for each of these areas and then evaluated them collectively in the report-back. Over the coming months, ORN will coordinate a process for refining the tools, in collaboration with LGBT activists and allies from other movements. One participant exclaimed, “I didn’t know that there was so much you could do by documenting cases. I am excited about this.”

One of the final facilitators was former member of Parliament and founding director of Women Solidarity Namibia, Rosa Namises, who gave a motivating talk about security and the importance of human rights documentation to it. She explained how Namibian history, particularly under white colonial and South African rule, created an unsafe and oppressive environment for all Namibians. In many ways, her remarks summarized the training. She said,

People say, “You don’t talk about these things. You don’t talk about sex and sexuality. When you do that, you stand on dangerous waters.” Because sexuality is very private --- killingly private --- you are also saving some other people [when you speak out]. When you come out, you come out to stand on those trembling waters. It’s not dangerous, it’s just uncomfortable.… In the end, it’s not about gay and lesbian issues but sex and sexuality. What does this thing called sex mean to our lives… This is how you deal with your invisibility: through cases, through numbers.

IGLHRC wishes to express sincere thanks to ORN and all those we worked with, deepened our relationships with, and became friends with in Namibia. We look forward to long and productive collaborations ahead.