Nam pins hopes on new gender degree

 

The University of Namibia has admitted its first batch of students into a new Master’s degree programme in Gender and Development Studies, kindling hopes in a country grappling with gender-related problems that include violence in which scores of women have been brutally murdered.

The degree follows three years of meticulous planning by UNAM and other partners locally and internationally.

The Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (FHSS), Professor Kingo Mchombu, says that for many years there were no dedicated postgraduate teaching programmes, specifically on gender matters in Namibia; even less so in terms of mainstreaming gender issues for national development.

To meet this demand, the FHSS put together a team, which included expertise from across UNAM. It was decided that the Department of Sociology (representing a discipline with a long history of addressing gender issues) would plan and host the new Masters in Gender and Development degree in collaboration with the Gender Unit in the Multi-disciplinary Research Centre, also at UNAM.

Immaculate Mogotsi and Dr Tom Fox eventually became the chief joint co-ordinators, inspirationally supported by Mchombu.

On the timing of the programme, Fox says it was appropriate given that gender issues were among the most pressing and important in contemporary Namibia. Gender-based violence against women has become a big social problem in Namibia and recently Founding President Sam Nujoma called for an end to it, saying men who kill women should be “buried alive”. And in March this year the country observed a national day of prayer as concerns grew over the problem.

Says Fox: “The programme certainly addresses gender violence and male power, but is also concerned with clarifying its causes; while also looking at how the empowerment of women and sexual minorities can be addressed and mainstreamed in national development policies.”

In Namibia and other parts of the world women also suffer forms of physical and psychological abuse, but generally fail to realise their life aspirations, career hopes or personal development in a society that traditionally favours male opportunity.

Fox explains that providing women with social and economic conditions in which they can obtain economic independence, career opportunity, and equitable social status underlined and guaranteed by legal and civil rights, was at the heart of this new Master’s degree.

The MA in Gender and Development combines the theory and practice of gender policy. Bodies like the Ministry of Gender and other ministries tend to be familiar with the practice, but weaker in conceptualisation and critical analysis of Namibian gender issues.

Fox says poorly conceptualised or insufficiently analysed gender issues might result in underdeveloped policies. Accordingly, the new MA has the practical purpose of helping to improve national gender policy, with academic expertise directly informing gender mainstreaming practice.

“The ultimate goal is that the MA will gradually produce a body of gender experts both in government and in the society with better capacity to effectively promote gender equality and equity effectively and measurably. As a long-term goal, women in the Namibian society will be the agents and recipients of difference and change.”

In developing this programme UNAM looked closely at already established gender programmes at other universities and institutes.

“The task of UNAM and its Namibian stakeholders was to ‘Namibianise’ the MA programme, and make it relevant to the country.”

Admission to the programme was highly competitive. In all, 74 people applied. In the end, UNAM admitted 18, in line with staffing and other logistical issues. Applicants working in government or the private sector directly with gender issues were given priority, although applicants with a general interest in gender were not excluded.

Three professors and six doctors are teaching the new MA, assisted by other staff members with Masters degrees.

“We have a strong and committed team who want our new MA to be as successful and relevant as possible. There is a lot of good chemistry between all of us,” Fox says.

In support of the new programme, the office of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Ministry of Gender Affairs have been instrumental in funding it. The School of Women and Gender Studies at Makerere University, Uganda was also involved.

Expectations are running high. Speaking at the launch of the programme recently, Patricia Boyce-Diaz, the Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Gender, Youth and Development, said Namibia faced a critical shortage of gender experts and her ministry was “very delighted” that UNAM launched this degree.

“We are actually looking forward to the first graduates from this programme to come and strengthen our ministry,” she said to beaming smiles from the first intake of pioneering students on the day of the MA’s official launch, adding that issues of gender equality and equity were complex, requiring qualified people to deal with them. She pledged to use her influence to ensure that those of the students from her ministry who had complained that their supervisors were not releasing them to attend tutorials were allowed to do so.

Abigail Noko, the Human Rights Officer in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations in Geneva who also attended the launch, said she hoped that the new programme would develop human resources key to solving many of the gender problems that include “gender stereotyping”, which she said was an emerging big issue.

However, not everyone is dancing on the tips of their toes and waving their hats in the air. UNAM Social Work lecturer and well-known social commentator Ndumba Kamwanyah, says the programme should have come much earlier and stresses that dealing with the “epidemic of gender violence” and other gender problems facing Namibia would require more than developing academic programmes.

“Gender violence in this country is not a new phenomenon; it has been here even before independence. We should have started to tackle it a long time ago. Waiting so long says something about the priority that we have put on gender issues as a nation. We need to find out why our young men are killing their partners,” Kamwanyah says.

He says gender roles are shifting with more women becoming independent and assertive. The prolific columnist calls for a paradigm shift on the concept of manhood “so that rather than raise ‘macho’ men and ‘submissive’ serving women, we raise human beings who respect and value each other.”

Calling for multi-disciplinary and multi-sectorial approaches to gender issues, Kamwanyah believes that globalisation has weakened the family – the primary agent of socialisation.

“We have a huge problem in that parenting has been outsourced to the schools, the media and other agents of socialisation. We need to strengthen families and our communities,” he says.

May 2014
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