Women, Gender parity and the Tourism Puzzle in Namibia

Aradhana Khowala

Those of us in the West like to think of ourselves as the centre of the progressive world. On a recent flight to Namibia where I was invited to give a keynote at the African Hospitality Investment Conference, a story riveted me and captured my attention because it had an ending that I didn’t expect. It was the recent Gender gap report from WEF and it was clear to me that we remain stubbornly stuck to our prejudices about Africa and it’s time for a rethink.

Since its independence in 1990, Namibia has made strides in achieving gender parity and implemented numerous policies to promote gender equality. It has ratifyied the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1992), set up a National Gender Policy (2012) and even implemented a quota system that ensures a substantial percentage of parliamentary seats are held by women to promote gender equality and empower women. The progressive legislation meant that earlier this year Namibia reached 50/50 gender equality in the National Assembly, is the only country in Africa to have delivered on SDG5 and is even on the verge of having a female President.

Yet, I can’t say I wasn’t surprised to find that in the latest 2023 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index, Namibia ranks number 1 in Africa and number 8 globally (only behind Iceland, Norway, Finland, New Zealand, Sweden, Germany and Nicaragua) having closed 80.5% of its gender gap. Furthermore, Namibia is the only African country in the top 10, leading the continent and outperforming many developed nations in other parts of the world, including the United Kingdom (15th, 79.2%), Spain (18th, 79.1%), Canada (30th, 77%) and the United States (43rd, 74.8%).

This progress is evident across all four sub-indexes—Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival and Political Empowerment—where Namibia consistently ranks in the top 25. Notably, the country has achieved 100% in Educational Attainment and 98% in Health and Survival and it surpasses global and regional averages in Economic Participation and Opportunity by nearly 18 and 10 percentage points, respectively.

Gender Parity through Tourism: A New Frontier for Equality

One sector that holds immense potential for furthering gender parity and empowering women is travel, tourism and hospitality. Namibia’s tourism sector is highly competitive. Original landscapes, untouched savannah, the oldest desert in the world, exotic wildlife and a unique mixture of African and European influences make Namibia a fascinating travel destination.

Yet, tourism isn’t just about beautiful landscapes and memorable experiences—it’s also a potent force for social change. In Namibia, where tourism already plays a crucial role in the economy, and provides opportunities for women’s employment and entrepreneurship there lies an immense opportunity to drive even more gender equality and foster inclusivity.

Tourism is the fastest growing economic sector in Namibia employing people from rural areas, making this sector an important employer that helps reducing rural poverty. In addition, tourism directly contributed 6.9% to Namibia’s GDP in 2022, equating to N$14.3 billion (of the total GDP of N$206.2 billion.). This sector also emerged as a significant employment powerhouse, generating 57,571 direct jobs, which translates to 7.9% of total employment, highlighting not only tourism’s capacity as a notable employer within the Namibian economy but also one which enhances overall community well-being.

Tourism businesses play a crucial role by implementing fair hiring practices and providing tailored training to equip women with the skills needed to thrive in various roles within the industry. This not only promotes gender equality but also boosts productivity and innovation within tourism enterprises.

Grootberg Lodge, Damaraland is a good example of economic empowerment through tourism. The lodge with its community-owned model ensures that local communities, including women, benefit directly from tourism revenues. Women are actively involved in hospitality roles, guiding, and management positions, contributing to both economic and social development in their communities.

Research has proven how women leaders bring unique perspectives that drive positive change within organizations and communities. Diverse leadership teams in Namibia’s tourism sector foster innovation and better decision-making. The more tourism businesses promote women to leadership positions and establish mentorship programs to nurture future leaders in the tourism industry, the better the success rate of a thriving tourism sector.

Namibia Wildlife Resorts (NWR) is a good example that has made significant strides in promoting gender equality in leadership roles. With a commitment to diversity, NWR has appointed women to key management positions across its network of lodges and resorts, demonstrating a strong commitment to inclusive leadership and paving the way for more women to excel in tourism management.

Ending gender violence and advancing education Initiatives

There is a stark correlation between gender-based violence and women’s empowerment as high levels of gender-based violence correlate with diminished opportunities for women, perpetuating cycles of inequality and limiting socio-economic progress. Tourism’s role in this endeavour is not well researched but it can help address gender-based violence as it is a sector that enhances the public visibility for women apart from promoting economic independence.

There are many economic empowerment programs in Namibia that provide women with access to credit, training, and entrepreneurial opportunities, helping them achieve financial independence.

Inclusive economic growth benefits entire communities, and tourism can be a powerful driver of sustainable development. Women-led tourism initiatives prioritize community development, reinvesting revenues into local infrastructure, education, and healthcare. This approach not only supports economic growth but also strengthens social cohesion and resilience within communities across Namibia.

Penduka Project, located near Windhoek, empowers women through various community-based tourism activities, including traditional crafts and cultural experiences. Women artisans are trained and supported to showcase their skills to tourists, generating income that funds community development projects such as healthcare and education initiatives.

Namibia also places a strong emphasis on education for all, with policies aimed at increasing girls’ enrolment and retention in schools and we know the education plays a crucial role in empowering women to participate fully in the tourism workforce.

Namibian Academy for Tourism and Hospitality (NATH) is a great example of offering specialized training programs aimed at equipping women with the necessary skills for careers in tourism and hospitality. Through partnerships with industry stakeholders, NATH provides mentorship and internship opportunities that prepare women for leadership roles in Namibia’s dynamic tourism sector.

Over the past 50 years, women have achieved an astounding level of equality. They have become astronauts and Supreme Court justices and have come close to winning the US presidency. It’s easy to forget that until mid 70’s women couldn’t get a credit card unless a man co-signed the application. Today women are more likely to hold a bachelor’s or master’s degree than men, and should they choose to marry, about a third of them will keep their last name. Gender roles are merging. Prejudices are being shed. In the last decade or so, but especially in 2024, we’ve been made to see how it was unthinkable to use gender parity and Africa in the same sentence. Today and going by the statistics with Namibia in the spotlight, the response is more like about time the West steps up and catches up.

Namibia is clearly a role model to the entire African continent. But while the WEF gender report demonstrates a tangible commitment to women’s empowerment, it is just one step towards a more equal society. This milestone isn’t the end – it’s a new beginning. Businesses, policymakers, and tourists each have a vital role to play in this journey because tourism not only enriches visitors but also empowers communities. Namibia’s commitment to gender equality will no doubt enhance its international standing and competitiveness in the global tourism market because destinations that prioritize gender equality attract socially conscious tourists seeking meaningful travel experiences.

Policymakers should support tourism campaigns that highlight Namibia’s dedication to gender equality, positioning the country as a progressive and inclusive destination for travellers worldwide as it can help Namibia gain new markets and enhance the overall image of the destination and the country.

Aradhana Khowala is a global expert and one of the most influential leaders in the travel, tourism and hospitality sectors.

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