Our project with traditional authorities

25 Jul 2013

Since 2010 the UNDP’s Governance Unit, in partnership with the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC), has been working with Traditional Authorities and their respective communities to bring awareness and solutions to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The Traditional Authorities Project aims to facilitate the reform and harmonization of those customary laws and practices that make certain groups, namely women and girls, more vulnerable to the spread of HIV/AIDS. Traditional Authorities are the custodians of traditional practices and are typically the first mechanism of redress for women and girls in the rural areas, thus emphasizing the importance of their participation to curtail the rate of HIV/AIDS amongst these groups.

As it currently stands, Namibia is ranked amongst the top 5 countries in the world in terms of HIV/AIDS prevalence rates. Within the country, HIV/AIDS is one of the primary causes for hospitalization, death, and the drop in life expectancy. Upon further disaggregation of the data, it becomes increasingly clear that women and girls make up the most vulnerable groups on account of social inequality and certain cultural practices. Research has shown that as a result of their perceived inequality, women and girls typically have lower levels of education and employment, as well as less autonomy over their bodies. The higher prevalence rates found amongst groups of women is fuelled by both social and cultural factors. In terms of social factors, the position of women exposes them to a web of multiple and concurrent partners, driven by transactional and intergenerational sex. Their inability to enforce condom use in relationships further exacerbates the situation. In terms of cultural factors, women are expected to accept male polygamy and male dominant practices such as wife inheritance, wife cleansing, early marriages, gender-based violence, and property grabbing, amongst others. These practices are encoded in customary laws and practices and are both promoted and protected by traditional authorities: the custodians of culture. For these reasons, the Traditional Authorities Project is vital to awareness-building, to aid in the legal and cultural reforms to protect women from economic and social abuse, as well as help to contain the spread of HIV/AIDS in Namibia.

In the initial phase, the project undertook the sensitization and identification process in all 13 regions of the country. Subsequent analysis revealed that the Ovaherero and Caprivi community cultural practices contained high risk elements of harm to women and girls. The second phase of the project in 2011 has since targeted these two communities. The process of requesting Traditional Authorities to reform, repeal, abolish, or even harmonize their customary laws in accordance with civil law however, risks being a futile task as Traditional Authorities are typically sensitive and cynical to external influence. To counter this reluctance, the project actively engages them in a conversation to demonstrate how customary laws and practices such as wife inheritance, wife cleansing, property grabbing, gender based violence, witchcraft, forced and early marriages make women vulnerable to HIV&AIDS. Through the use of the community conversation methodology, the project helps Traditional Authorities to self-identify and self-assess their customary laws and practices. Once these are identified, the respective Traditional Authorities are encouraged to harmonize and publicly abolish some of them.

Thus far, the UNDP and LAC have traveled to 6 out of the 13 regions in the country to meet with various traditional leaders. Traditional Authorities, in turn, have identified those laws and practices which make women vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. Twelve (12) royal houses mainly from Omaheke, Otjozondjupa, Kunene, Kavango & Caprivi region participated in the development of practical frameworks which outlined the plans how they intend to deal with these factors.

Upon completion of this project, communities will be informed about the drivers of the epidemic and customary laws will be adapted to better respond to the issues surrounding HIV/AIDS and gender inequality. Not only will addressing the main drivers of the epidemic benefit the most vulnerable groups, but will also benefit society as a whole as HIV/AIDS continues to pose a significant threat to the political, economic, and social spheres of Namibian society.