Voices Inspiring Change – The Feminist: Irene Garoës
“I was a rebellious child,” Irene Garoës says with a smile. “A troublemaker.”
It’s midday in the bustling Namibian capital of Windhoek, and we are sitting across from each other at an office complex in the southwest region of the city.
Looking at Irene, you might mistake her for a college student—clad in jeans and sneakers, and a checkered flannel shirt. But her appearance belies the gravity of the work that she does, which is helping to educate and empower some of Namibia’s most vulnerable populations.
Irene is a community organizer with the Women’s Leadership Center where she organizes and facilitates trainings on women’s reproductive health and rights.
“I am a feminist activist,” she says, “and I think I have always been—always saying: something is not right, it has to change somehow.”
Irene’s interest in women’s issues developed early in life when she was growing up in different towns Namibia.
“Throughout my life I saw things that were not right in my eyes—how a girl would be treated, and boys being treated better,” she says.
After a stint at university in Windhoek, she applied to become a police officer, and was stationed in Kahenge, in northeast Namibia, where she regularly dealt with cases of domestic violence against women.
According to the UNFPA, 33 percent of girls and young women aged 15-24 years have experienced physical violence in Namibia. Limited availability and access to high-quality integrated services are a serious challenge, with 15 percent of gender-based violence survivors never seeking support services.
Irene found that customary laws and social norms discouraged abused women from engaging with the criminal justice system, and violence often went unpunished. Sometimes, women who came forward were further harmed by their aggressors. Irene felt she had a limited ability, as a police officer, to change things: “I was thinking: am I really doing what I thought I was here to do? I wanted to help women, but I felt there was not much I could do.”
She returned to Windhoek where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree in communications and began volunteering with the Women’s Leadership Center (WLC).
The WLC is a feminist organization founded in 2004, that works with marginalized women in Namibia to help create “a society in which all women actively engage in shaping the politics, practices and values of both public and private spaces, based on the knowledge of their full human rights as persons and as citizens.”
Working primarily through community facilitators who live in Namibian villages, the WLC builds movements to educate and empower women. They work on a variety of issues including indigenous people’s rights; harmful cultural practices (including female genital mutilation); and with lesbian women throughout Namibia. They do their work through an eclectic set of activities: research, engagement, and communication through the arts—photography, writing, drawing and painting.
One of the organization’s first activities involved creating a space for women from across the country, documenting their stories and publishing them in two anthologies—I Choose Life and Between Yesterday and Tomorrow, which was then shared widely in schools, libraries and with local leaders.
“There was a lot of violence during the independence struggle. And some women were like: what about women and their rights? And the response was: let’s first fight for the common good, let’s first fight for the independence of the country, and then we can look at those things. But after independence, women were still being left behind. So that’s why we said: let’s tell women’s stories.”
Since then, the WLC has published Speaking for Ourselves: Voices of Young San Women, and various booklets: Violence is Not Our Culture, San Women Speaking for Ourselves, a booklet for parents with lesbian daughters, a health booklet for Namibian lesbian women, and two photo books called Our Lives in Our Hands and Creating Ourselves in Our Own Image. They plan to publish two additional books by the end of 2019, one about gender-based violence in the Zambezi region and one about the experiences of lesbian women.
This vast collection of stories and data forms the basis for their engagement with local officials—traditional leaders, regional governors, and local government—whom they encourage to do more to protect and empower young women.
“We knock on different doors of the ministries and get them to come and sit in the same room with us, and we say, look we have done our research. This is happening. So, can we change something about it?”
The goal, says Irene, is: “to make visible the realities that women are facing.”
Although Namibia is an upper middle-income country and has made huge strides to reduce poverty and increase girls’ access to education, women, especially in rural areas, continue to be marginalized. According to the UNFPA: “44 percent of female-headed households and 32 percent of women live below the poverty line. Women, especially girls, are often forced to find alternative ways to earn a living, making them susceptible to sexual abuse and exploitation, gender-based violence, child and early-marriage (7 percent nationally), HIV and unplanned pregnancies.”