In order to promote women’s empowerment and to generate awareness of the importance of gender equality, the United Nations Information Centre (UNIC) Windhoek celebrates women and their accomplishments each Wednesday. For this week’s #WCW #WednesdayCelebrateWomen, UNIC Windhoek celebrates Ottilie Abrahams, the principal of Jakob Marengo Tutorial College in Katutura, Windhoek.
Ms. Abrahams was born in Windhoek and attended secondary school and University in Cape Town, where she studied Dutch, Afrikaans, Geography and History. Throughout her studies, she became interested in politics and actively engaged in a variety of political platforms. After University, she returned to Namibia where she continued her engagement, openly voicing criticism against the government and its actions. This critical stance eventually resulted in her family’s deportation into exile in Botswana where she worked as a Secretary for the SWAPO party for ten years.
Ms. Abrahams’ husband also shared her passion for politics, and he strived to bring changes to the people in Namibia. She says, “It was a marriage made in heaven, in political heaven!”
After these years in exile, the family was then granted asylum in Sweden. During that period, Ms. Abrahams was studying to get her doctorate in English Literature. It was another 10 years until they were finally allowed to come back to Namibia in 1978. She then left SWAPO and became Secretary General for National Independence Party (NIP).
Upon returning to Namibia she saw how different Sweden and Namibia were in terms of gender equality, seeing the immense inequalities and constraints Namibian women faced. Ms Abrahams said that she couldn’t even buy herself a house in Namibia and that her husband had to do it for her, something quite shocking at first, but a valuable experience that inspired her to step it up for women’s rights.
Ms. Abrahams, her husband and a few other people founded an organization called the Namibian National Programme on the principle of participatory democracy, while they also ran a holiday school for students. The students performed so well that they founded their own school, Jakob Marengo Tutorial College, in 1985. The school is a non-governmental school because at the time Namibia was under the doctrine of the South African government. Instead of waiting for the government they took matters into their own hands. “We help ourselves,” Ms. Abrahams emphasized.
Jakob Marengo Tutorial College is founded on three principles: participatory democracy, critical thinking and non-sexism. “By everything we do, the school makes sure that these principles and especially the last, are fulfilled. For example, girls have the same positions as boys do and no boy would dare treat a girl differently and in a non-respectful way because they know that they would be sent to the principal,” she said.
Ms. Abrahams continues, emphasizing the importance of promoting gender equality in education, “People should simply make their students aware of the fact that in this country we believe in gender equality and that it is against the law to discriminate women. Also, we should focus on reaching out the parents and educators because they are the ones bringing up the new generation.”
“If a teacher educates the girls that they are entitled to gender equality, then they will become soldiers themselves. Especially if they see other girls making something of their lives, then they will follow that example,” Ms. Abrahams said.
Emphasizing the importance of gender equality education, she stated, “as we say: when you educate a woman, you educate a family. This country would actually be better off if it would invest more in the education of women.”
Jakob Marengo Tutorial College also believes in giving second chances, as everyone who applies to the school is accepted. “It is never too late to change something in your life,” Ms. Abrahams says.
After Jakob Marengo, Ms. Abrahams founded a few other schools. The more she got involved in the Participatory Democracy Project, the more she engaged in education, because education also forms the foundation of participatory democracy.
Namibia used to be a very patriarchal country, and Ms. Abrahams explains that many people felt that women in political parties were only there to cook tea and coffee. Because of this, Ms. Abrahams and a few other people decided to found the Namibian Women’s Association, which was the first women’s organization in Namibia, founded by women and for women.
This organization was also very busy with the Children’s Movement, which has worked with counterparts in South Africa and Angola and now hopes to spread across all countries across Africa. Its premise is that it believes that children can change the world, provided that they are given a little bit of assistance.
Seeing increased gender equality in Namibia over the years, Ms. Abrahams opined, citing the Marriage Equality Act, “By working together with other women’s organization and also the legal assistance, Namibia has achieved a lot when it comes to promoting gender equality in the country.”
Finally, Ms Abrahams said, “girls should understand that they can do whatever they want to in their lives. They should never give up and keep on following their dreams! They should believe in themselves because they are capable of reaching everything they strive for!”