One in every three female Swazis has experienced some form of sexual violence before turning 18, and two out of three aged 18 to 24, according to the first national survey to chart the scope of sexual and other types of violence perpetrated against women and girls.
From infancy to until they turned 24, nearly half (48.2 percent) of Swazi women experienced some form of sexual violence, according to the National Survey on Violence Experienced by Female Children and Youths in Swaziland, conducted by the government, UN agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
A key question in the survey was: "Has any adult ever kicked, bitten, slapped, hit you with a fist, threatened you with a weapon or thrown something at you?" The findings were the result of interviews with 1,300 women and girls aged between 13 and 24, randomly chosen from about 1,900 households across the country.
"We knew it was bad for women in Swaziland; we just did not have the statistical evidence to show how bad," said Primrose Tsabedze, a counsellor for abused women in the central town of Manzini.
Statistics from the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA), an NGO working to combat gender violence, have shown a steady rise in cases of violence against women during the past decade, which has been partly credited to better reporting of such crimes.
"Our statistics are based on our case loads," said Nonhlanhla Dlamini, a SWAGAA director. "We have always needed a national survey; that is why it is so important that one has now been done, even if the results are horrifying."
Why so much abuse?
Before the new constitution was adopted in 2006, Swazi women had the legal status of minors, and were unable to own property or open a bank account without the permission of a male relative or husband.
|We knew it was bad for women in Swaziland; we just did not have the statistical evidence to show how bad|
The traditionally low status of women has also been linked to the staggeringly high levels of HIV infection: 40 percent of adult Swazis are estimated to be HIV positive, the highest rate in the world.
Some observers blame worsening economic and humanitarian conditions in the country, along with the belief by some HIV-positive men that sleeping with a virgin girl can prevent AIDS, for the rise in violence against women and children.
Sexual coercion was common: six out of 10 Swazi females reported that they were forced into their first sexual experience; of these, five percent said they were raped or otherwise "forced".
Fear of violence
Women often submitted to unwanted sex out of fear of physical violence: about 28 percent of girls aged between 13 and 17 experienced physical violence, and the likelihood that they would be assaulted increased as they grew into adulthood, with 33 percent of women aged between 18 and 24 saying they were violence survivors.
Exposure to education was no protection against violence - 98 percent of women and girls who participated in the survey had been to school.
Abortion is illegal in Swaziland, and family planning is generally disdained by Swazi men: 29 percent of women and girls reported unwanted pregnancies but despite the multiplicity of sexual encounters reported by women under 24, only 12.9 percent of them were married.
Commenting on the preliminary survey report this week, United Nations Children's Agency (UNICEF) representative Jama Gulaid, said, "It is important to know the epidemiology of violence against children and women - how big the problem is, who is affected, when, where and possibly why. We need such information to improve our response."
The need for such a survey was raised in December 2006 by UNICEF's Swaziland office, which provided funding and technical support. The ministries of Health and Social Welfare, Education and Justice, NGOs like SWAGAA and World Vision, and other UN agencies such as UNAIDS, the UN Population Fund and the World Health Organisation, helped conduct the survey.
Little community support
Community support for sexually and physically abused women was also examined, to establish what might be required by way of safe houses, clinics and legal services.
"There is very little [support] available to women and girls who suffer violence," said Tsabedze, the Manzini counsellor. "The perpetrator is almost always a family member, and neighbours and authorities are reluctant to intervene in family matters."
|Education is no protection against violence|
The Deputy Prime Minister's Office told IRIN that the police have been sensitised to domestic violence issues in recent years, and had made arrests leading to convictions.
Since 2004, the Ministry of Education has run a four-digit toll-free telephone number (9664) for children experiencing abuse at school or at home. Callers receive basic on-line counselling, and cases are followed up by Regional Guidance Officers. Half of the callers have been boys, suggesting the need for a survey investigating abuse perpetrated against them.
However, use of the service has dropped drastically since its inception, indicating that reported abuse was either not being resolved or children have lost confidence in the initiative. Cases dropped by half from 2004, when they numbered 1,574, to 745 in 2006.
"Violence has a huge cost to society," said UNICEF's Gulaid. "The physical consequences include injuries to the body, and disability. The psychological consequences include alcohol and drug abuse, depression, anxiety, development delays, eating disorders, suicidal tendencies, feelings of shame and guilt."
The sexual and reproductive consequences include sexual dysfunction, unwanted pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases, he said, which was particularly dangerous in Swaziland, where over a quarter of sexually active Swazi adults are infected with the HI virus.
One of the saddest statistics reported by the survey was that 67 percent of Swazi women told researchers they felt depressed.