Irene Garoës is an activist who is passionate about feminist movement building at the community and national level with marginalised groups in Namibia. She leads the lesbian projects of the Women’s Leadership Centre, a feminist women’s rights organisation based in Namibia.
“I’ve always been known as a troublemaker, in the sense that that I will never be quiet when I see something that doesn’t sit right with me,” says Irene Garoës. “Even when I didn’t have the words for it, human rights and feminism were important to me growing up.” After secondary school she joined the police force, but realized she didn’t have as much power as she wanted in this career to bring changes to people’s lives. “When I joined the Women’s Leadership Centre (WLC) as a volunteer in 2014, this is where my activism and feminist leadership grew.” Today she directs the lesbian empowerment programme of the WLC in several regions of Namibia and supports projects by the Young Feminists Movement Namibia.
Garoës’ work at the Women’s Leadership Centre helps build local leadership and lesbian groups in five regions of the country. The groups focus on human rights, women’s rights, sexual and reproductive autonomy and health, conflict resolution and self-defence, and on healing from violence by means of writing, bodywork, meditation, photography, music, dance, film-making and other forms of self-knowledge and expression. They organize public events in their communities, using their own texts and other creative work to raise awareness and build solidarity for lesbians.
Stigmatization of lesbians
“What I don’t like at all is patriarchy and its systems and institutions,” says Irene firmly. She knows what these systems do, especially to vulnerable groups like lesbians. “Silencing lesbian women through stigmatization, discrimination, social exclusion and all forms of violence leads to fear, isolation, invisibility, and a loss of voice, creative power, agency and joy, also to internalized homophobia that can result in depression, self-hate and self-harm.” Not addressing these matters poses a grave danger, she says. “Young lesbians will otherwise be excluded from envisioning different futures for women in our country.”
Gay men and lesbians in Namibia face a difficult situation, with taboos on homosexuality in large parts of the country. In recent years, however, there has been greater attention to the topic. A law from the apartheid era prohibits same-sex relations between men, but is both controversial and seldom applied. In May of 2021, the Law Reform and Development Commission recommended that it be revoked as unconstitutional. Another apartheid law, the Combatting of Immoral Practices Act of 1980, can also be used against “immoral” public displays of affection between men. Neither law explicitly addresses lesbian relations or actions.
Abolishing these laws, which Namibia inherited in 1990 on gaining independence from South Africa, is the best thing that could happen to her country, says Garoës. Her wish is for all Namibians to have equal rights in terms of all laws, including the Combatting of Domestic Violence Act which the parliament passed in 2003. An attempted amendment in 2020 would have explicitly excluded same-sex couples from its protective measures.
Irene learnt from the first generation of lesbian feminist activists in Namibia about the hate speech directed at them by leading ruling-party members from 1995 to 2006. “Homophobic prejudice and abuse erase the humanity, dignity and rights of lesbian women.” Combatting this and encouraging women to work for their rights have become her life’s work.
“We use creative forms of expression like writing, theatre, dance and music to build resistance to stigma and discrimination, by increasing self-knowledge, articulation, visibility, courage, pride and solidarity,” she adds. The Women’s Leadership Centre takes a holistic approach that promotes the mental, emotional and physical well-being of young lesbians in Namibia, as well as their feminist leadership.
“It’s important for lesbian voices to be heard at this crucial time,” says Garoës. Years of commitment by the WLC and others to feminist and lesbian causes have created a more favourable political climate for social change in Namibia in terms of recognizing the human rights of minorities. A National Plan of Action on Human Rights was adopted in 2014, which includes public education and awareness-raising on LGBTI rights. “Namibia currently has a number of initiatives to promote lesbian and gay rights as well as women’s sexual and reproductive rights and health, including bodily autonomy and choice.” Garoës is involved in several of these actions.
Exciting initiatives by the Women’s Leadership Centre
In 2015 the WLC created a photography exhibition and photo book with texts and images by project participants, along with booklets targeting young lesbians and their families. In 2016 and 2017 local workshops and public advocacy events were held in four regions of the country, and in 2017, the first Namibian Lesbian Festival was held, with 70 active participants. The festival has since been held annually. “We spend a week designing and rehearsing it, and then go on stage together with our texts, music and expressive dance. Audiences are very enthusiastic about these presentations of our everyday lives in Namibia: our experiences with discrimination and violence, but also our joie de vivre and creative energy as proud and powerful activists.” In 2021 a Lesbian Anthology was released, and the new project in 2022 will be the production of a lesbian feature film. “It will be the very first lesbian feature film to come out of Namibia,” says Irene with pride.
She is currently working on a campaign to advance women’s and girls’ rights to sexual and reproductive health and choice. “We’re working with two partner organizations – Positive Vibes and the Young Feminists Movement Namibia – on a national campaign called “Ti Soros Ge” (“It’s my body”) to foster bodily autonomy and integrity for all,” she says. Church groups and pastors are included in this policy and education-based campaign, which is also running in Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi and Uganda.
One aim of further training in critical feminist activism has to do with sustainability. The idea is for young lesbians to learn to lead their own groups and develop their own initiatives and campaigns independently of the WLC. Sustainability is also a key factor for donors. When asked what she would like from donor countries and their civil societies, Irene highlights support for the Sustainable Development Goals, with a focus on economic empowerment for young lesbians so they can emerge from poverty, as well as investment in the movements they build.
Her greatest wish? “World peace. A feminist world. A world in which women are leaders and enjoy respect, dignity, freedom and choice.” Garoës’ activism and work at the WLC is an illustration of what that world could look like.
Caroline Ausserer and Liz Frank
- Publications of Hirschfeld Eddy Foundation (mostly in German)
15 Portraits of LGBTIQ+ Human Rights Defenders:
|Cesnabmihilo Dorothy |
|Mauri Balanta Jaramillo|
|Jean Elie Gasana|
|José Ignacio López|