Traditional chastity vow may have lowered teenage HIV rates

As a generation of young Swazi women end a five-year vow of chastity in a traditional ceremony this week, health officials are debating the impact of the custom on reducing the risk of HIV infection.

"We have loads of anecdotal evidence that girls are using the 'sex ban' as a way to avoid unwanted intercourse with demanding boyfriends and even older men. That is proof enough that some good has occurred - no one expected the custom to eliminate premarital sex entirely," said Goodness Simelane, an HIV councillor in the central commercial town of Manzini.

The custom is known as "umcwasho", after the tasselled woollen headgear worn by young women for five years: powder blue and yellow for teenagers from puberty up to 18 years old; red and yellow for women aged 19 to 24.

It was re-introduced in 2001 as the government tried to rise to the challenge of AIDS in a country where an estimated 40 percent of adults are HIV-positive - the highest infection rate in the world.

"I felt safe from boys wearing the tassels - the boys saw it and they stayed away," said Nomthula Maphalala, a 16-year-old high school student from the southern provincial capital, Nhlangano.

After journeying with 150 of her age-mates, crammed into the back of an army truck, to Ludzidzini Royal Village, 15 km east of the capital, Mbabane, Nomthula discarded her umcwasho headgear upon her arrival, marking the end of her rite of passage.

"At one o'clock in the morning we put all the tassels in a big pile; no men were allowed to be near when we did this. The next night we burned them - it was like throwing away a part of my youth," said Nomthula.

Without the protection of the umcwasho custom, in which girls pledge to abstain from sex and devote their efforts to self-improvement and learning traditional Swazi ways, young women like Nomthula fret they may have trouble with demanding boyfriends.

"My boyfriend told me that I must have sex with him when the umcwasho period ends," said Nomthula's friend, Sylvia.

Health officials do not anticipate a sexual free-for-all now that the period of virginity has officially ended, but they would like to see the custom followed by all teenage girls, instead of occurring only once a generation. The last time the umcwasho was observed was in the 1970s.

"There is a possibility that the umcwasho contributed to a perceptible decline in the rate of HIV infection among teenage girls," said HIV counsellor Simelane.

A health ministry sentinel surveillance report, released in April, showed a decline in the number of HIV-positive pregnant girls from 33.5 percent in 2002 to 29.3 percent in 2004.

Analysts pointed out that the fall in HIV infection was within the 3 percent plus-or-minus error range, but acknowledged that the data showed a stabilising of the infection rate among teenage girls, unlike other Swazi age groups.

Health Minister Sipho Shongwe seized on the statistics for teenage HIV infection as evidence that Swaziland had turned the corner in its battle with AIDS. Prime Minister Themba Dlamini gave parliament the same message last week.

Health officials, however, also credit AIDS awareness campaigns and the effect of regular burials of relatives and friends who have died of AIDS-related illnesses for influencing sexual behaviour.

"We must continue to reinforce the 18 to 24 [age] group of young adults to abstain from sex - you want to keep influencing them, and creating an environment that reduces risk, including stronger law enforcement against sexual abusers, greater empowerment for women to say no to unwanted sex, and a change in the culture of casual sex," said Thandi Hlengetfwa, director of the AIDS Information and Support Organisation, a Manzini-based NGO.

"We are telling teenagers to take charge of their own lives, for the sake of both their own personal survival and for the future of the Swazi nation," noted creative designer Tshepo Motlhala, who conceptialised a media campaign for the National Emergency Response Committee on HIV/AIDS that encouraged teenage girls to choose abstinence.

The campaign's theme was 'Ngoba likusasa nelami', SiSwati for 'Because tomorrow is mine', and one image showed a fashionably dressed girl wearing the umcwasho headgear. Now that the custom has ended, the image will be modified.

However, few fashionable girls in town were seen sporting the umcwasho tassels during the custom's five-year period.

"That is something the rural girls do, because their chiefs impose it," said a Manzini High School girl named Janice.

About 20 percent of the country's 1 million population resides in urban areas, but a large majority live on communal Swazi Nation Land and must follow the rules of palace-appointed chiefs. Some headmasters in rural high schools required female students to wear the umcwasho tassels.

"No girl I know wears the umcwasho," said Vusi, a 20-year-old town resident. "If you are a boy, you must respect a girl for who she is, and not for what she wears."

Enlightened views like Vusi's aside, health officials and ordinary Swazis made calls in the press this week for the immediate reintroduction of the virginity period as a new generation of teenage girls passes through the age of AIDS.