First masters in gender and development studies

The University of Namibia has admitted its first batch of students into a new masters degree programme in gender and development studies, kindling hope of new solutions to gender-related problems that include violence in which scores of women have been murdered.

The degree follows three years of planning by the university, called UNAM, and partners locally and internationally.

Professor Kingo Mchombu, dean of humanities and social sciences, said that previously there were no postgraduate programmes specifically on gender matters in Namibia, and no mainstreaming of gender for national development.

To rectify this gap, the faculty put together a team of experts from across the university.

It was decided that the department of sociology – a discipline with a long history of addressing gender issues – would plan and host the new masters in gender and development in collaboration with the gender unit in the university’s Multi-disciplinary Research Centre.

Gender issues

Immaculate Mogotsi and Dr Tom Fox became the chief joint coordinators. Fox told University World News that the timing of the new programme was appropriate given that gender issues were among the most pressing and important in Namibia today.

Gender-based violence has become a big social problem and Namibia’s founding president, Sam Nujoma, recently called for an end to it – adding that men who killed women should be “buried alive”. Last March, a national day of prayer was observed as concerns over gender violence grew.

Said 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, as in many other parts of the world, many women not only suffer physical and psychological abuse but also generally fail to realise their life aspirations, career hopes or personal development in societies that traditionally favour male opportunity.

Providing women with conditions in which they could achieve economic independence, career opportunity and equitable social status, underlined and guaranteed by legal and civil rights, was at the heart of the new degree, Fox explained.

The masters combines the theory and practice of gender policy. While organisations such as the Ministry of Gender, Youth and Development and other ministries tend to be familiar with practice, they are weaker in conceptualisation and critical analysis of gender issues.

Fox said poorly conceptualised or insufficiently analysed gender issues could result in underdeveloped policies. Accordingly, the new masters has the practical purpose of helping to improve national gender policy and directly informing gender mainstreaming practice.

“The ultimate goal is that the masters 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 Namibian society will be the agents and recipients of difference and change.”

In developing the programme, UNAM looked at gender programmes in universities in other countries. The trick was to ‘Namibianise’ the masters to make it locally relevant.

Strong demand

Admission to the programme was highly competitive, and only 18 of 74 applicants were admitted, given staff and other logistical issues. Applicants from government or the private sector working directly with gender issues were given priority.

Three professors and six doctors are teaching the new masters, assisted by staff with masters degrees. “There is a lot of good chemistry between all of us,” Fox said.

The United Nations Development Programme and government helped fund the new masters, and the school of women and gender studies at Makerere University in Uganda has also been involved.

Speaking at the programme’s launch recently Patricia Boyce-Diaz, deputy permanent secretary in the Ministry of Gender, Youth and Development, said Namibia faced a critical shortage of gender experts and the ministry was “delighted” that UNAM had launched the 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 students, adding that issues of gender equity were complex.

Some students from the ministry had complained that supervisors were not releasing them to attend tutorials, and Boyce-Diaz pledged to use her influence to solve the problem.

Long time coming

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 commentator Ndumba Kamwanyah said the masters should have been launched much earlier and that dealing with the “epidemic of gender violence” and other gender problems would require more than academic programmes.

“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 said.

He called for a paradigm shift on the concept of manhood, “so that rather than raising ‘macho’ men and ‘submissive’ serving women, we raise human beings who respect and value each other”.

Calling for multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral approaches to gender issues, Kamwanyah argued that globalisation had weakened the family. “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 said.