Ya Nangoloh drags Olufuko 'strip show' to court

09 October 2019 | Justice

Namibia's government, former president Sam Nujoma and two traditional authorities are opposing a lawsuit attempting to ban the Olufuko cultural festival for its alleged degrading showcasing of young girls which is said to infringe on their dignity and human rights.

These are the arguments contained in a founding affidavit filed in July this year by Phil Ya Nangoloh, the executive director of NamRights, just a month before the start of the festival in August.

The human rights organisation states that the festival, revived in 2012, is in essence a “female sexual initiation ritual, a harmful traditional practice which had ceased in the country some 80 years ago”. Moreover, it charges that the festival, as pertains to girls younger than 18, is unlawful and unconstitutional and “should be outlawed”. In 2012 Ya Nangoloh issued a statement in which he said the festival was “discriminatory and degrading against girls”, while also incompatible with Namibian laws, including the constitution.

In October last year he accused the festival of being more like a strip show where young girls are put on display for men, promoting patriarchy and oppressing women.

Further, he claimed that the festival was contrary to Namibia's contemporary, civil, cultural, political and social customs and practices, and paraded poor, bare-breasted girls in public without their consent.

At the time, the government was warned that unless girls younger than 18 were barred from participating in the event, Namrights would take legal steps within three months.

In the July founding affidavit, the organisation asks that the court declare the festival a “violation of a whole range of human rights of girl children and young women.”

Namrights also asks that the court declare the festival a sexual initiation ritual of young girls that is inherently coercive, forcing young girls to be paraded before potential husbands. It claims that children as young as 12 are offered for “marriage, sexual intercourse and childbirth.”

Of the 19 respondents listed in the lawsuit, only the first four filed notices to oppose the action, including Sam Nujoma as the fourth respondent, the government of Namibia as the first, and the Ombalantu and Ombadja traditional authorities as the second and third respondents.

Nujoma is the festival's patron and officially opened the event in August this year.

Not so

The remaining respondents include the ombudsman, the Namibia Tourism Board, Women's Solidarity Namibia, Sister Namibia, the Legal Assistance Centre and Lifeline/Childline.

NamRights informed the court that the majority of respondents were only cited as interested parties and unless they opposed the application, no substantive costs or other relief would be sought against them.

The opposing parties filed an answering affidavit in August, in which they relied on Erastus Kautondokwa, a senior cultural officer in the education ministry, to state their initial case.

Kautondokwa, a member of the Ombalantu traditional community, states that he holds a master's degree in cultural anthropology, and that his thesis was based on the Olufuko cultural practices.

He argues on behalf of the respondents that based on his lifelong interest in these practices, all the girls that participate “do so willingly and with the consent and permission of their parents.”

Further, he claims that for the communities involved, the event is a “rite of passage for young girls aimed at teaching and empowering young girls with basic skills and responsibilities of womanhood.”

Kautondokwa also states that as a ministerial officer he has “never come across any complaint from any girl or parent” that they were in any way “exposed or subjected to any female sexual initiation as alleged.”

The affidavit further states that NamRights and ya Nangoloh have no right to institute the court proceedings, as they are neither directly nor indirectly affected by the alleged misconduct.

Moreover, Kautondokwa asserts that the alleged victims and their parents are free to institute civil or criminal actions to enforce their rights, should they feel they are violated.

The case was scheduled for a status hearing before High Court Judge Collins Parker yesterday.

The first four respondents are represented by government attorney Mehluli Ndlovu. NamRights has not yet confirmed who its legal representative is; ya Nangoloh has appeared on behalf of the organisation so far.