Throughout October 2020, the small country of Namibia saw large protests across numerous cities as young women marched against gender-based violence under the hashtag #ShutItAllDown.
The protests followed a number of violent assaults against women, including the discovery of the body of a young woman who had gone missing in April. Protestors demanded drastic action, including a state of emergency, in response to the issue of violence against women and girls.
Luna Zhakata, an 18-year-old student, was among the young women who took to the streets demanding action. Here, she shares her experiences as a young woman in Namibia and why the #ShutItAllDown protests were so important for her.
You can read more from the In My Own Words series here.
In an attempt to describe myself for the sake of this piece, there were a few immediate descriptions I deemed appropriate; student, activist, feminist, Namibian, 18-year-old, and an array of others.
Ultimately, I found that there is only one description of myself that is truly indispensable to this essay: girl child. This is important, because my existence as a girl child in this country has meant that my life is composed very differently to that of my male counterparts.
Activist and student Luna Zhakata
At 18 years old, one aspiration that occupies my life more than any other is to ensure that I am allowed to live. Every day of my life, of our lives, is plagued by taking every reasonable precaution to ensure no man can harm us, all the while mentally and emotionally preparing for the possibility that they could and do.
It is essential to stress that gender-based violence is a pandemic. For the women of the Republic of Namibia — a country where attending a party or taking a walk or being out after dark may result in the loss of life — leaving the house for any reason at all requires strategy and diligence.
For some, even the home is a treacherous environment; and an alarming percentage of the violent rapes, femicides, molestations, gender-based abuse, assault, and harassment that are perpetrated includes victims under the age of 16, sometimes much, much younger.
Toddlers are harmed by fathers, uncles, brothers; while wives are raped by husbands and colleagues. I find myself in a constant, debilitating fear for my own life and the lives of the women around me. The women I love, the women I know, even more so the women who are unknown to me, who I know I cannot advise, monitor, or protect. The heartbreaking reality is that to be a woman in this country means, at any given time, and through no fault of your own, your life is in ever-present and genuine danger.
On the afternoon of Oct. 7, 2020, the news of Shannon Wasserfall’s murder incited nothing short of state-wide shock, pain, and rage. The immediate understanding was that the country’s authorities had failed her, as they had countless other women and girls in the past. Among Namibian social media users, this was the most prominent story.
Everyday, I was painfully reminded that Shannon was still missing, and after seven months of my blind hopefulness that she was alive and safe somewhere, finding out that she had been murdered devastated me, as it did all of us. I’d never been personally acquainted with Shannon and yet I cried. I wept, shamelessly, for two days because yet another woman had been slaughtered in Namibia.
The protests that followed were something of an emergency — there was no amount of thoughts, prayers, condolences, or well wishes that would numb the realisation that yet another woman, whom in this particular case had been missing for seven whole months prior, had been murdered in this country.
It was not the first time, but we are willing by any means necessary to make sure it is the last. The only appropriate action, it was conceded, was and still is to essentially force the government, the authorities, to intervene and do so immediately, following a very clear and non negotiable set of demands that included the immediate declaration of a nationwide state of emergency, on the grounds of a pandemic of gender-based violence and femicide.
This materialised into the protests that began on Oct. 8, appropriately deemed the Shut It All Down movement — posters were up with the hashtag #ShutItAllDown within 12 hours.
By that same morning, I was negotiating school day exemptions for my classmates and me. Myself and my friends were involved as quickly and as fiercely as humanly possible, I was dressed in black, furious and heartbroken, and more prepared to shout and disrupt that I had ever been.
The first two days, we felt no anxiety about the overwhelming police presence. Our police force uphold a reputation of peace, and always have, and in our minds, their intention was to stand with us. We discovered very quickly that this was not the case, and regardless, the protests continued. They shall continue until extreme action is taken to quell the rape and femicide pandemic in this country.
Every person in attendance, including and especially myself, was convinced of the following: the apparent inability — or rather, outright refusal — of the Namibian government to prioritise us, the women, the girl children, could only mean that the entire institution and those that run it, do not care if their women live or die.
The events after that reinforced that particular perception. On Oct. 10, the Namibian government made it clear that they were more prepared to deploy special forces and emergency resources to pacify a crowd of peaceful protesters, than they were to establish earnest and effective solutions to quite literally save the lives of an entire demographic of their country’s people.
This, for us, meant the immediate declaration of a state of emergency, the immediate establishment of nationwide 24/7 police patrols, particularly in rural or lower income areas, and the reevaluation of relevant authorities and policies, among much else.
A portion of Namibians have been involved in this fight for the safety of women for as long as I can remember. Gender-based violence and sexual gender-based violence are not a recent phenomenon here: the population of Namibia as of 2020 is upwards of 2.4 million people. The female demographic occupies 1.3 million, or, 54.2 % of that.
From Lekki to Kampala, frustrated youth are saying they are tired. They need to be listened to before it’s too late.— Nancy Kacungira (@kacungira) November 19, 2020
Of this 54.2 %, up to 35% have experienced violence at the hands of a man — this is not even considering the number of cases of violence that go unreported. Every woman I know, myself included, has been a victim of this hatred at one level or the next, and there is no exaggeration in my saying “every woman”.
At their core, gender-based and sexual gender-based violence in Namibia are allowed to run rampant, as a consequence of the inherent sociocultural normalisation of microaggressions and violence towards women — such as cultural norms that set the precedent for how men are either allowed or expected to behave, and the general culture that promotes the idea that men are worth more than women.
Socially, men have normalised rape culture and perpetuating aggressions such as cat calling, assault, such as unwanted touching and groping, coersion and threatening, things that they consider either normal, “not big deals”, or simply things they are entitled to do.
Until the country commits to undoing these harmful norms, intensely and at a nationwide scale, the demonstrating cannot and will not cease, until each and every woman here can feel safe in her own land.
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