I wanted to visit one of the Woman and Child Protection Units (WCPUs) because of all the things I had heard about them. I had heard praise: the Namibian government had seen a problem – rampant physical and sexual abuse and assaults on women and children – and had taken steps to solve it. One of those steps was the system of 15 WCPUs, run by the Namibian police, scattered around the country, mainly in the largest cities of each region. They were safe havens where women and children who had been abused, raped, or threatened could come and report the crime and could receive medical exams and basic treatment, counseling, and even temporary shelter. But I had also heard criticism: the WCPUs were cold and often unhelpful, gave bad advice on legal issues and even discouraged people from getting services they were entitled to, and were not well stocked with necessary medical items such as rape examination kits.
I went to the WCPU in Windhoek last week to see for myself. It’s housed at the Katutura State Hospital, one of the two public hospitals in the capital. I was able to take pictures of the outside but not anything inside – the reaction when I asked to take photos was of horror (even though I made it clear that I would only take pictures of rooms, not people).
It was a bit daunting first walking in, as the two women at the reception desk were less than welcoming. I can only hope they are more sympathetic to the people coming in who actually need the WCPU’s services. They directed me to the person in charge, a police officer, who was much friendlier and offered to show me around. I accepted, and I believe he showed me every room in the building.
The space was sizeable. Most of the rooms were offices for social workers and other employees. While not fancy, the rooms were fairly clean, well-lit, and cheerful. A lot of the walls had large Disney characters painted on them. I saw three rooms specifically for the use of women and children needing services. There was an interview room for children, colorfully-decorated and filled with toys, books, and dolls. Looking around it made me sad that there was the need for such a room, but I’m glad it’s there for those who need it. The medical examination room seemed reasonably well-equipped to my inexpert eye, and my guide even showed me a stack of four rape kits on the table. Finally he showed me the waiting room where women and kids who flee their homes in the night can come and wait for WCPU staff. It had a table, chairs, and a single mattress with a blanket thrown over it. It was clear that this is a temporary space.
The WCPUs do not act as long-term shelters, and there is only one such shelter in the country. It is also in Windhoek. Most women and children requiring longer-term shelter are put up in hospitals or other makeshift lodging. This is not the fault of the WCPUs but it does indicate a lack in the system.
Recently I met with Veronica Theron, who works at the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare. She is a trained social worker who has worked for 15 years in the fields of gender-based violence and child protection, and is now in charge of the social workers at all the WCPUs. She admitted that many of the WCPUs were not well-equipped: that they needed vehicles to respond to incidents, for example. She also said that since there are only 15 units in such a large country, they are only in the larger towns and cities. Women and children in rural areas may not be able to reach them, and the police in those areas may not be well-trained on issues of gender-based violence and child abuse. She saw a need for more funding to improve the WCPUs and their reach. She sees the necessity, too, because she confirmed the statistics that I’d been seeing – that violence against women has been steadily increasing since independence. Every year there are more rapes and more assaults. She also made an observation that I had not yet heard from any publications or officials: that cases of rape and domestic physical violence have been increasing in severity and brutality since the Combating of Rape Act and the Combating of Domestic Violence Act were passed in 2000 and 2003, respectively. Because the penalties for these crimes are now harsher than they were, perpetrators are more likely to attempt to kill the victim in order to get rid of the evidence. She specifically mentioned child rape cases in this context.
When I asked if she thought there was a problem with guns and domestic violence, she said something I found surprising but that in retrospect is obvious: that guns are much more often involved in cases of domestic abuse involving wealthy families. This is because these are the people that can afford to buy a gun for protection. The weapon of choice for a poorer abuser would more likely be a knife, although he may threaten her, saying he will buy or borrow a gun. She said that women in wealthier families, too, are more likely to be isolated from supportive family and friends (specifically, she mentioned the wives of diplomats, far from their homes), so the psychological abuse can be far worse. This often includes death threats.
Previously, I had interviewed Detective Chief Inspector Rosalia Shatilweh, the National Coordinator for the WCPUs for the Namibian Police. I asked her what she thought the scope of the problem is here in Namibia, and here is her answer:
Posted By Johanna Wilkie
Posted Aug 20th, 2009