Windhoek, Namibia – When Bertha Tobias first headed to the streets of Namibia’s capital last week, she had one clear goal in mind: Shut it all down.
The young activist, like many of the hundreds of other protesters in Windhoek, was enraged after news emerged that police believed to have found in the dunes of the port town of Walvis Bay the remains of Shannon Wasserfall, a woman in her early 20s who had gone missing in April.
Demanding justice, like-minded campaigners swiftly mobilised through social media to protest against sexual gender-based violence (SGBV). Marching through the streets of Windhoek and other Namibian cities, they pledged to keep protesting until substantial political action was taken to address femicide, rape and sexual abuse.
“We just want to be able to go out of our house after 6pm and feel safe,” said Tobias, an outspoken 20-year-old activist in Windhoek.
Leebus Hashikutuva, another protester in the capital, described the #shutitalldown movement as a series of actions meant to disrupt public life nationwide.
“All over the country, everyone is frustrated, concerned, traumatised – and everybody is tired,” Hashikutuva said. “The revolution will not only be televised but it will also be tweeted and Instagrammed. We are using the power of social media as a collective.”
SGBV is a persistent problem in Namibia, in particular, intimate-partner violence against women and girls, sexual violence by non-partners and femicide. Reports earlier this year said police were receiving at least 200 cases of domestic violence monthly, while more than 1,600 cases of rape were reported during the 18 months ending in June 2020.
Campaigners said that, like in other parts of the world, a months-long lockdown to slow the spread of coronavirus pandemic had now made life even harder for domestic violence survivors forced to self-isolate with their abusers.
On Friday, while protests were continuing, 27-year old Gwashiti Tomas was allegedly brutally murdered by her boyfriend because she wanted to end their relationship.
With politicians failing to deliver progress, many women said the fear of violence was constantly accompanying them.
When asked about the changes she would like to see, Tobias replied, “I don’t know if we’ll live to see this, because change is happening so slowly, but the ideal situation would just be to leave my house after dark and go out to buy milk; to not have to send a live location as soon as I leave my house that is active for eight hours; to not have to take down the details of a cab because otherwise I’ll be decapitated and my body will be left in a ditch.”
In a petition addressed to the speaker of the National Assembly, the campaigners called on authorities to declare a state emergency over SGBV; consult with SGBV experts to tackle the problem; and prioritise the urgent review of sentencing laws for sex offenders and murderers, among others. They also demanded the resignation of Doreen Sioka, minister of gender equality, poverty eradication and social welfare.
In addition, Sister Namibia, a non-profit organisation promoting women’s rights, published on social media a detailed 10-point action plan for the government to implement.
Ndapwa Alweendo, the group’s spokesperson, said stigmatisation of victims was at the root of the problem. “There’s a culture of silence in place to keep women and children from speaking out. There’s a stigma about coming out as a survivor of any kind of violence. This has been a problem in the country since the fight for independence.”
She further argued that the problem in tackling SGBV in the country was not a lack of expertise, but the disconnect between the government and civil society organisations.
“There have been two national action plans against SGBV that have been developed [in 2016 and 2018],” said Alweendo. “The plans exist, but they are not being put into action. There’s a back-and-forth between government and civil society. Criticism of the government is often seen as an attack.”
Al Jazeera contacted the Ministry of Gender Equality, but did not receive a response by the time of publication. In a statement on Sunday, Prime Minister Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila said the petition submitted by the campaigners would receive “priority” and stressed that the government was “in full agreement” with the public that the high incidences of sexual and gender-based violence in the country “cannot be allowed to continue”.
Late on Tuesday, the government announced its response to the campaigners’ petition, saying, among other measures, that “the current legal and policy environment shall be strengthened” to deal with gender-based violence issues.
Even though the government’s statement did not meet the demands seeking the declaration of a state of emergency over SGBV and Sioka’s departure, some activists deemed the response satisfactory.
“Now, we can work on meaningful collaboration with the government,” Tobias said.