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By Peter Kenworthy, Communications and Project Officer
On September 28, King Mswati III praised women around the world for “continuing to play key roles in contributing to the socio-economic and political development of our nations”. Whereas this is certainly true, and even though Swaziland have ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2004 and the country’s new constitution promises equal treatment for men and women, the latter face an uphill struggle for equality in Mswati III’s Swaziland.
Men and women still do not have equal status in Swaziland, as Swazi women are legally subordinate to men in e.g. both civil and traditional marriages. And even though the new constitution might have theoretically done away with laws that meant that Swazi women could not get a bank loan or own property without the written consent of their husbands, and thereby promoting them from the status of minors, these laws have not yet been revoked. In practice the Swazi Supreme Court has even reversed a High Court ruling that allowed women to register property in their own name, banks still refuse to give bank loans to women without their husband’s written consent, and customary law forbids women to register property in their own names.
In addition to the inferior legal standing of women, one in three females in Swaziland, according to UNICEF, have “experienced some form of sexual violence as a child”, and nearly two thirds of 18 to 24 year old women have “experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetime”. Additionally, more than half of the incidents of sexual violence committed against girls are not reported to anyone, as females in general are either ”not aware that what they had experienced was abuse ”or” feared abandonment if they told anyone”, and according to Amnesty International, “many men regard rape as a minor offence”. Generally, there has been a steady rise in violence against women in the past ten years. Much of this violence is probably due to women being seen as inferior to men because of the fact that women cannot own land in Swaziland, that women are generally in “an economically subordinate position” to men, because the Swazi family structure is generally hierarchical with the husband as the head of the family, and because most women subsequently depend on men for their livelihood in Swazi society.
Finally, there is the culturally determined “inferiority” that Swazi women have to contend to, such as traditionally having to be the last person to eat when food is served, that traditional authorities can still fine women for wearing trousers, or that is okay for men to beat a woman (a National Democratic and Health Survey recently found that 40% of the male population of Swaziland believed that it was all right to beat women). Such cultural, patriarchal ideas tend to assume that all socially crated distinctions between men and woman are somehow biologically determined and therefore irreversible. It is important, therefore that any solution to the problem of discrimination against women also reflects on the mental side of this discrimination.
There are several possible solutions to women’s problems in Swaziland, although all these solutions are complicated by the break-up of families because socio-economic and poverty-related issues such as Swaziland’s extremely high prevalence of HIV/AIDS and the many orphans that are the result of this. 41% of households in Swaziland are female-headed and 10% child-headed.
More concrete solutions include parenting programmes that focus on family management and information dissemination regarding sexuality for female children. But to truly empower women to take an active part in their own uplifting, any such solution or programme will need to be inclusive and go to the root of the cultural aspects of gender discrimination.
Two examples of programmes or NGO's that seek to promote inclusiveness, self-reliance and empowerment among some of the most vulnerable, stigmatised and marginalized women in Swaziland are Swaziland for Positive Living (SWAPOL) and Swaziland Single Mothers Organisation (SWASMO). SWAPOL was formed in 2001 and is an organisation that provides counselling and education, and seeks to improve the living conditions of people who are affected by or infected with HIV in the rural areas, many of whom are women. SWASMO was formed in 2009 and is an organisation that promotes self-reliance and mobilises single-mothers and teenage mothers, mainly in the urban areas. Both organisations also seek to promote a more positive image of their target groups.
According to Siphiwe Hlophe from SWAPOL, one of Swaziland's most prominent AIDS-activists, women with AIDS are doubly discriminated against. “Women can’t even to go to the hospital without their husband’s consent. What is more, HIV positive women are often terribly cut off from their communities and families”.
According to Beatrice Bitchong from SWASMO, single mothers and teenage mothers are particularly stigmatised and not at all respected in Swazi society. “The problem in mobilising them is that most of them have a fatalistic view of themselves and society and do not believe that life can be any different or better than it is presently”.
Finally, activism and demonstrations can show the ruling elite that women are to be taken serious, and any solution to the problem of discrimination against women must include an element of pressure and NGO involvement. Activism is also important to create a sense of empowerment and to remove the sense of being regarded as a permanent victim that must be “rescued” by others. Internationally, the women’s agenda has been very disproportionate, being most visible in the wealthier Western nations, and even here success has only come about as a result of massive pressure from women’s NGO’s and activists.
Even though many Swazi men frown upon women marchers and deem it “un-Swazi”, women’s organisations are taking to the streets and marching with increasing frequency. The demonstration against the extravagance of the royal family in 2008, organised by the Women’s Coalition of Swaziland and SWAPOL, and the (mainly female) textile workers demonstrations for better conditions, also in 2008, are significant examples of this. Another example of an organisation that is increasingly outspoken and reflective is the street vendors organisation, many of whom are widows, grandmothers and single mothers.
As we can see, the problems of women are not solely a gender-related issue but also a poverty- and rights-related issue. That such “women’s issues” are still mostly addressed by women is therefore problematic as violence and discrimination against women is not just an issue for women to contend themselves with, but an issue for all who wish to promote human rights.