Mountain climbing for most is a sign of strength, courage, achievement and perhaps a sense of freedom. For the 25 men and women who summited Mountain Brandberg in Namibia from 18-21 April, their drive was solidarity against gender-based violence (GBV).
Led by young people, gender activists, women affected by GBV, representatives of non-government organisations, artists, poets, and radio personalities completed the climb to increase public awareness on GBV and advocate for behaviour change in Namibia.
“With the increasing number of gender-based violence cases in Namibia it was important to bring young people together to discuss possible solutions while having fun,” said fashion designer, Hem Matsi who organized the climb.
In Namibia, 40% of females have experienced physical violence compared to 28% of their male counterparts, according to a 2009 study on Knowledge, Attitudes and Practices (KAP) conducted by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare. The 2011 National Crime Statistics showed that the Namibian police recorded 1085 reported cases of rape and 277 attempted rape in the same year.
“Gender-based violence is a national problem and each one of us within the Namibian society should take part in the fight against GBV,” said Rosalia Nghidinwa, Minister of Gender Equality and Child Welfare during the official expedition send-off hosted by the Ministry.
Traditional social norms such as child marriage and gender inequality in Namibia are thought to create an enabling environment for various forms of GBV, including intimate partner violence and domestic violence.
Furthermore, there seems to be a high tolerance embedded in the society when it comes to men beating their wives or partners. What goes on behind closed doors is regarded as a family matter, and not the business of neighbours, friends, or the authorities.
The Government of Namibia has put in place various legislative measures including the ‘Combating of Domestic Violence Act of 2003’ to address GBV in the country. However, lack of effective implementation of laws and policies constrain women and girls from having total protection of their basic human rights.
“In Namibia, there is disparity between the protective measures provided in the legislation and the reality on the ground,” said Rachel Coomer of the Legal Assistance Centre. “The response to gender-based violence is under resourced with too many systemic failures that leave the victims without the protections they need.”
GBV is considered to be a main factor in the HIV epidemic as it significantly decreases a woman’s ability to protect herself from HIV infection. HIV infection in turn can increase risk of violence and abuse as women living with HIV are often blamed for bringing the virus into the family - which can lead to abuse and even killings.
“Stopping gender-based violence and ensuring gender equity will go a long way to help us end the AIDS epidemic,” said Henk Van Renterghem, UNAIDS Country Coordinator in Namibia, who participated in the hike co-sponsored by UNAIDS. “The voice and energy of young people, artists and the media are critical to make a difference in the lives of many women and girls.”
At the summit of Mt Brandberg, the climbers joined the MYWORLD initiative and casted their vote to ‘end AIDS and gender-based violence’. By doing so, the climbers identified these as priorities to shape the next global development goals after 2015.
For many participants, the climb was not only an epic adventure but also a real blood, sweat and tears experience of hiking up steep slopes with temperatures soaring to more than 30c degrees. “It was the hardest physical and mental challenge that I ever had to overcome. What kept me going was knowing that many people go through worse pain every day with little or no hope for solution. We need to do more to fight GBV - men should respect the women of their community,” said 22-year-old student Taleni Matheus.
The group of young Namibians chose not only the highest mountain but also a place of great symbolic value to get their voices heard on the importance of stopping GBV. Brandberg is not just the highest mountain in Namibia at 2 606 m of elevation but also a mythical place of great natural and cultural importance - a spiritual site of great significance to the San (Bushman) tribes with hundreds of rock art sites and paintings.