A new report by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) has found that cultural practices intended to safeguard young Swazi women from unwanted pregnancies and HIV infections may actually be contributing to the spread of HIV/AIDS.
The UNDP study titled "Gender Focused Responses to HIV/AIDS in Swaziland", said that some age-old Swazi customs intended to keep girls chaste before marriage had the potential to safeguard girls’ health. However, their effectiveness has been compromised by the break-up of the traditional Swazi family and social structures.
"In the past, it was in a girl's best interest not to get pregnant before marriage, and this was enforced by her family," nurse Agnes Kunene in the commercial city of Manzini told IRIN. "But today our surveys show most girls feel their principal goal in life is to be mothers, the sooner the better, in or out of marriage."
Kunene explained that women are legal minors in Swaziland and cannot own property, enter into contracts or receive bank loans without the consent of a male relative. Changing social conditions mean that the girls also no longer have the support of extended families and multi-generational rural homesteads. They are told that their principal duty is to procreate and to please a man who will take care of her, Kunene said.
"Swazi society expects women to be subordinate and submissive; allows men to have multiple sexual partners; and polygamy, which exposes women to HIV infection, is legal in the country," the UNDP report noted.
Polygamy as a formal institution is practiced less frequently in Swaziland, due to the expense a man incurs paying a cattle dowry called lobola to his fiancé's family. However, in place of legally recognised wives, are mistresses or girlfriends.
A health ministry survey taken at the beginning of this year found 34.4 percent of adult Swazis have either the HI virus or full-blown AIDS, and projected that one-quarter of the population would be dead from the disease by 2010.
"We find that there is great awareness of AIDS, and people have been educated about condom use, abstinence and monogamy, but there has been no actual change in behaviour whatsoever," a Western diplomat told IRIN.
The UNDP report found in addition to polygamy, other cultural practices which placed people at risk included arranged marriages, society's approval of multiple sexual partners for men, and widow inheritance, whereby a widow moves into the homestead of her brother-in-law, who becomes her surrogate husband.
"The brother-in-law also gets all the husband's property, leaving the widow with no choice but to submit to him for her survival and the survival of her children," said Doo Aphane, legal advisor for the Swaziland branch of Women in Law in Southern Africa.
Aphane said that gender equality had to be achieved to free women from the threat of HIV/AIDS.
Most shocking to Swazis was the report's finding that the annual Reed Dance contributed to the spread of HIV/AIDS among young women.
Only virgins can participate in the Reed Dance, where they present the queen mother Ntombi with reeds which she uses to construct wind screens around the royal village. This year 30,000 girls participated in the dance, meant to pay homage to the queen mother and Swazi culture.
But people interviewed for the report said that many girls used the week away from home and parental supervision for sexual flings. This year Swaziland's local media carried reports of "young maidens" breaking their chastity vows to have affairs, "sometimes with traditional authorities".
Editors of the Times of Swaziland, the country's only independent news organ, were summoned this week to a meeting with royal advisors to King Mswati III and told that publishing the UNDP report was unpatriotic.