Working with churches to reduce intimate partner violence in Namibia

"Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath."

In exile, Jesus wept – this biblical quote says to me that it’s okay for men to cry,” said Rheinholdt Kharigub of the Catholic Men’s Association and Parish Council in Windhoek, Namibia. Such insights came to Rheinholdt as he, along with eight other representatives of various religious denominations, attended a 3-day intimate partner violence (IPV) training convened by MenEngage Namibia (MEN) in February 2017.

Between 2013 and 2015, IPV became a massive public concern in Namibia, with the Minster of Gender Equality and Child Welfare declaring in a public forum that 150 murders of female partners had taken place during this time. The seemingly sudden scourge prompted a National Day of Prayer and gave rise to the second National Gender-Based Violence Conference (GBV) in 2014. Poverty and inequality are key drivers of GBV in Namibia, although deeply-entrenched, harmful gender norms as a result of the gendered socialization of men and women, along with high levels of alcohol consumption also contribute to the prevalence of violence in society.

In a strategic decision to adopt a narrower view of one specific aspect of GBV in Namibia, MEN developed the IPV Session Guide. “The tool is designed to create spaces for men to reflect on their roles, privilege, socialisations, masculinities and the manner in which all of these could contribute to a propensity for violence within a relationship,” said James Itana, Coordinator for MEN. “It was also an opportunity for men to discuss the places they are able and willing to go to seek health-related and psycho-social help.” The inclusion of sexual and reproductive health (SRHR) and rights was included to respond to evidence that men largely have little knowledge about their partners SRH as well as their own.

As early as 2012, the National Training Manual on Engaging Men and Boys on GBV in Namibia (developed by MEN on behalf of the Ministry of Gender and Child Welfare) highlighted the need for a holistic approach to responding to GBV, including working with religious leaders. Namibia is a deeply religious society where religious leaders are respected and influential. The possibility that an interpretation of religious texts, coupled with strong cultural beliefs could reinforce gendered perceptions of women as submissive, is of obvious concern. Therefore, working with churches and religious leaders (arguably a group that’s difficult to penetrate and resistant to change), was lauded as having a certain degree of innovation.

IPV Training participants were identified through MEN’s engagement with the Council of Churches in Namibia and its Ecumenical Action Against Gender-Based Violence, a project underway since 2012. The overall goal of the training workshop was to introduce church leaders to the IPV Session Guide and explore the role that the churches can play towards addressing IPV.

Alphonse Koruhama, a youth leader at the Gospel Truth Ministry Church and director of a newly-established NGO called Possibility Thinkers, appreciated the training as it offered men license to speak about their feeling and discuss issues in relationships. “Working in a group also helps men to be more accountable to each other,” he stated. “After the training, I have been making use of the themes I learned and trying it out with friends. I stared a communication WhatsApp group with close friends. I’m actively encouraging discussions on relationships within the group.”

Shortly after the IPV training, Alphonse convened an event at his church and invited a number of speakers, including James, to address the congregation. According to Alphonse, his church does not regularly speak about issues of GBV, nor does the pastor include these issues in his sermons. James’s presentation, which included topics around power relations, inequality, GBV and HIV, was very well received by the audience. “Young people have been asking me to convene a follow-up,” Alphonse stated.

Rheinholdt is working with his parish priest to include an IPV component to the pre-marriage and marriage counselling offered by the church. Some of Reinhold’s highlights of the IPV training include exploring the contradictions inherent in society’s expectations of men and its role in allowing and sustaining violence in relationships. In addition, he is grateful to know more about the service providers available to assist men who are experiencing difficulties in relationships. “Since the training, I have been referring many people to Lifeline Childline,” he said. “I never knew it existed but when members of my family were fighting, I told them about where they could get help. Even when there are problems in the location where I live, I use some of those strategies – sitting down and discussing things, looking at who you can go to for help – that I learned in the training.”

There is potential for working more closely with churches and opportunities and the entry points are numerous. At the end of the IPV training, some participants volunteered to have themselves recorded using biblical references in an effort not to condone IPV. In addition, churches already have platforms where IPV could be introduced such as those identified and currently utilised by Alphone and Reinhold. In addition, Mr Benson Matali, development planner in the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare, spoke of the men’s organisation within the Seventh Day Adventist Church and the recent session called “End it Now”, relating the GBV. Mr Matali’s church also has strict policies related to violence, such as the fact that men with a history of violence cannot occupy elected positions within the church.

One lesson learned as a result of the training with churches was the need for MEN to, rather than have worked through the Council of Churches, make direct contact with churches and establish relationships in this way. This is likely to be much more sustainable. Although seventeen invites were sent out, only nine participants attended the training. In addition, participants were representatives of church leaders, rather than senior church leaders or pastors/priests responsible for making strategic decisions within their churches. Therefore, while working with churches is a promising practice that can be replicated in almost any context, relationship building as well as follow-up to closely monitor actions have been implemented, is crucial to success.