CIVICUS speaks about recent moves to ban same-sex marriage in Namibia with Kevin Wessels, a young activist and a seasoned consultant and social entrepreneur working to advance human rights in Namibia.
Kevin works with several Namibian LGBTQI+ rights organisations, driven by a vision of a just society where everyone, including LGBTQI+ people, enjoys equal rights and opportunities. To that end, he connects with like-minded people and organisations in Namibia, across Africa and around the world.
Namibia has a reputation for being a democratic country with relatively open civic space. Do LGBTQI+ people enjoy the same freedoms as everyone else?
Despite Namibia being a democratic country where civic freedoms are mostly respected, the situation of LGBTQI+ people is mixed: it is better than in many other countries in the region, but legal and social discrimination persist. Namibia has seen some progress on LGBTQI+ rights, such as the recognition of gender identity.
Most recently, in May 2023, Namibia’s Supreme Court ruled that the government must recognise the unions of same-sex couples who married in countries where it was legal for them to do so, even though same-sex marriage remains illegal in Namibia itself. The ruling, which drew mixed reactions in a country that’s socially conservative, was in sharp contrast to developments in Uganda, where one of the world’s most draconian anti-LGBTQI+ laws has been passed.
But Namibian LGBTQI+ people continue to face numerous challenges, so there is a lot of work still to be done.
First and foremost, there is the matter of legal status: same-sex sexual activity remains prohibited under the common law, which Namibia inherited when it gained independence from South Africa in 1990. Although South Africa decriminalised same-sex sexual activity, Namibia has not.
The law criminalises acts of ‘sodomy’ and is applied only to men. While punishment for this offence is not clear, there is evidence of the law being enforced, with over 100 reported cases resulting in more than 50 arrests since 2003. However, consensual sodomy has seldom been prosecuted, so the provision appears to be largely obsolete. Nevertheless, its mere existence is a violation of human rights and underpins further acts of discrimination, and is inconsistent with Namibia’s constitution, which provides for equality and non-discrimination.
LGBTQI+ people in Namibia continue to face discrimination, harassment and stigma, both in society and in their families. This often results in challenges in accessing healthcare, education and employment opportunities.
Key issues on the Namibian LGBTQI+ rights movement’s agenda include decriminalisation of same-sex relations and the establishment of stronger legal protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, equal access to healthcare, including gender-affirming care, educational initiatives and awareness campaigns to increase understanding of LGBTQI+ issues and acceptance of LGBTQI+ people, and firm policies to address hate crimes and violence against LGBTQI+ people.
How are Namibian LGBTQI+ organisations working to promote LGBTQI+ rights?
There are several active LGBTQI+ advocacy groups in Namibia, including Equal Rights Namibia, Drag Night Namibia, Out-Right Namibia and the Namibian Transgender Movement, among others. I am directly associated with several of these. We focus on raising awareness, advocating for legal reforms and supporting LGBTQI+ people.
LGBTQI+ organisations seek to influence policymakers to achieve legal reforms and protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Some have pursued legal cases to challenge discriminatory practices and establish legal precedents for LGBTQI+ rights in Namibia.
LGBTQI+ groups also conduct educational campaigns and workshops to raise awareness and promote understanding of LGBTQI+ issues among society as a whole. They foster visibility and create community by holding parades and festivals during Pride Week celebrations. They provide support, counselling and resources to LGBTQI+ people facing discrimination, mental health challenges or other issues related to their identity. They create safe and inclusive spaces for LGBTQI+ people to connect and share experiences.
Building a supportive community is a fundamental aspect of this work, and so is the celebration of our achievements. LGBTQI+ organisations celebrate milestones and achievements in the fight for equal rights, such as our recent legal victory, successful awareness campaigns and the establishment of new support networks and safe spaces. We are most proud of the progress we have made in gaining legal and societal acceptance of LGBTQI+ rights and people.
Have you faced backlash for the work you do?
Yes, I have! People and organisations advocating for LGBTQI+ rights in Namibia, as in many parts of the world, often face backlash as a direct result of their advocacy work. This may come in various forms, including discrimination and social stigma, particularly within communities, harassment or threats to personal safety, legal challenges or restrictions and resistance from conservative anti-rights groups that may present legal challenges, disrupt activities, issue statements publicly questioning LGBTQI+ rights and stoke social opposition.
Despite these challenges, many LGBTQI+ activists and organisations in Namibia and around the world continue to work tirelessly to promote equal rights and acceptance for LGBTQI+ people. We exhibit resilience, determination and a commitment to creating a more inclusive and accepting society.
Do you see the anti-rights reaction in Namibia as part of a regional or global trend?
There are domestic, regional and global factors at play. While anti-LGBTQI+ groups across countries tend to raise the same themes and use a shared set of tactics, the level of opposition and the specific issues can differ according to the cultural, religious and political context. Some regions may experience more organised and coordinated anti-rights efforts, while others may face a less centralised opposition. Anti-rights groups often have international connections and support, sharing strategies and resources across borders, although the extent of this coordination can vary widely.
In other words, it’s important to recognise that LGBTQI+ rights movements and their opponents exist on a spectrum, and there is a diversity of views within societies. And while there may be pockets of strong opposition, there are also many people and organisations globally working to promote LGBTQI+ rights and equality. Efforts to advance LGBTQI+ rights often involve engaging in open dialogue, education and advocacy to address misconceptions and promote understanding among these different segments of society.
What triggered the recent initiative to ban same-sex marriage in Namibia? How have LGBTQI+ groups and other human rights organisations reacted, and what are the next steps in this struggle?
In July 2023, the National Council, Namibia’s upper house of parliament, passed a law banning same-sex marriage and punishing its supporters. The bill was aimed at countering the recent Supreme Court ruling that authorised the recognition of certain same-sex unions contracted abroad. Its proponents stated that its purpose was to ensure respect for the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. The text of the bill defines marriage as a union between persons of opposite sexes and defines a spouse as ‘half of a legal union between two persons born genetically male and female’. It states that marriages concluded abroad between two persons of the same sex cannot be recognised in Namibia and makes the solemnisation, participation in, promotion or advertisement of such a marriage a criminal offence punishable with up to six years in prison and fines up to NAD 100,000 (approx. US$5,200).
This is the fastest a law has been passed in Namibia. It was adopted by the National Council without any opposition, and the National Assembly, parliament’s lower house, also quickly endorsed it. However, it still needs to be promulgated by the president to come into force. The LGBTQI+ community has condemned it as an unconstitutional attack on our rights, but there is nothing we can do to stop the president from signing it into law. We will have to contest it in court for it to be deemed unconstitutional.
What kind of support do Namibian LGBTQI+ organisations receive from international partners, and what further support is needed?
Namibian LGBTQI+ organisations are well connected with international movements for LGBTQI+ rights. We often participate in international conferences, workshops and events to share experiences, strategise together and exchange information, research and best practices to enhance advocacy efforts. Global spaces also give additional visibility to our efforts. As part of its awareness campaigns, for instance, Drag Night Namibia, one of the organisations I collaborate with, recently staged a performance in Berlin, Germany.
International movements help raise awareness about LGBTQI+ issues in countries where there may be limited local support. They show solidarity by condemning human rights violations. In this context, various Namibian LGBTQI+ organisations have condemned the Ugandan government’s laws and actions against LGBTQI+ people.
Additionally, international partners may from time to time provide financial support to Namibian LGBTQI+ organisations in the form of grants or donations to help us carry out our work effectively. But we still need a lot of further support, not just financial but also in terms of the provision of platforms for advocacy and visibility.
Civic space in Namibia is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.