Gender Equality on the Horizon: The Case of Uukwambi Traditional Authority in Namibia

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Gender Equality on the Horizon: The Case of Uukwambi Traditional Authority in Namibia


"The Namibian customary system and its administration was severely gender imbalanced and both opponents and proponents of gender equality long believed that women’s rights and traditional rule were eternal foes. Whether or not this was the case in pre-colonial times is not certain, as the presumption of women’s traditional inferiority within such systems is highly disputable. What is clear is that colonial intervention during the twentieth century promoted changes in local customary norms, resulting in extensive gender disparity in Namibia. Women leaders were all but purged from the local traditional arena and women were largely excluded from participation in traditional courts. As such, the emerging structures of the colonial tribal system evolved into all male domains. Other factors, such as the emergence of male contract labor resulting in the introduction of a male controlled cash economy, as well as the influence of Western missionaries and Christianity, exacerbated the subordinate position of women in society and combined to create a widespread belief in Namibia that traditional rule could not and would not accommodate women’s rights. In particular, the traditional system included norms that were detrimental to women’s rights. A salient example is the customary inheritance norm that states that upon a man’s death, his estate is inherited by his matrilineal family. Despite a customary obligation of the husband’s family to support needy widows and children, widows and their children were often chased out of the house, back to the widow’s matrilineal family, in a practice often referred to as ‘widow chasing’ or ‘property grabbing’. Notwithstanding these shortcomings, traditional leaders played and continue to play an important role in present-day rural Namibia, with evidence showing that despite regional differences and individual dissatisfaction, traditional leadership is considered a necessary and viable institution. Empirical studies undertaken in the mid-1990s showed a positive attitude towards traditional authority among respondents in both the north and south of Namibia. Notably, support for traditional leadership did not preclude negative feelings toward the incumbent traditional leaders. In this context, any intervention aimed at empowering women in Namibia would likely have considerably more impact if it addressed the customary sphere."


Janine Ubink



International Development Law Organisation




© 2013 International Development Law Organization (IDLO)








Janine Ubink, “Gender Equality on the Horizon: The Case of Uukwambi Traditional Authority in Namibia,” Namibia Digital Repository, accessed July 13, 2024,

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