Swazi women are organizing to promote their rights and welfare, convinced that discriminatory laws are at odds with the essential roles they play in their families and in their country’s economy.
“We are taking a page from the past to achieve the recognition Swazi women deserve as the ones who keep this society going. It is a scandal how the authorities refuse to take women seriously when we are holding the country together,” said Cynthia Simelane, an activist who works with female garment workers at the Matsapha Industrial Site, outside the city of Manzini.
The Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civil Organisations has noted that the Swazi government has signed various international accords pledging to end gender discrimination, but it has never enacted legislation to put those pledges into action.
In 2005, King Mswati III, a strict traditionalist with 13 wives, signed a new constitution granting men and women equal rights. However, discriminatory laws - such as one that prevents women from taking out bank loans - remain in place. Another such law, forbidding women from owning property, remains on the books despite having been ruled unconstitutional.
In the past year, the Swaziland Single Mothers Association (SWAMASO), which aims to improve the lives of single mothers and reduce high teen pregnancy rates, doubled its membership.
“In Swaziland today, a majority of children live with one or no parent, mostly because of AIDS but also because Swazi men have many girlfriends," said Thabsile Ndwandwe, a SWAMASO member. "A majority of Swazi children are raised by single mothers or by their grandmothers if the mother is no longer alive. Where are the programmes to assist these mothers? Where is even the government acknowledgement of this reality?”
Instead, the government announced last week that elderly Swazis, including grandmothers, will not receive their pension stipend this quarter due to “limited resources”. Swaziland’s financial crisis has not eased since the last time the government suspended pension payments in 2011. The amount of the stipend is only US$73 per three-month period, but the majority of elderly live in chronic poverty and the suspension of the pensions will hinder their ability to purchase food and medicines and care for their grandchildren.
SWAMASO’s attempts to lobby the government to give more assistance to single mothers have not yet paid off, but the organization is making a difference in other ways. Its network of community groups plays an important role in educating girls about avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. A quarter of Swaziland’s population is HIV-positive, the highest rate in the world.
Tradition of organizing
Activist Simelane pointed out that Swazi women have a long tradition of organizing according to their age groups, from the young maidens who assemble to collect building material for the Queen Mother ahead of the annual reed dance to the grandmothers who supervise community improvement projects.
Other women’s groups include the Swazi Women for Positive Living, established in 2003 by HIV-positive women to assist other women living with the virus, and the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse, formed by women to influence policy on the country’s high rates of domestic and gender-based violence.
Last month saw the establishment of a new group - the Swaziland Young Women’s Network - which announced its launch with a march through the streets of the capital, Mbabane, to protest the prevalence of sexual harassment. The police blocked the march on the grounds that some of the women were wearing miniskirts.
A week later, the Royal Swaziland Police Force spokeswoman Wendy Hleta invoked a 19th century public indecency law as a basis for arresting women wearing miniskirts or tank tops. Hleta added that women who wore revealing clothing were responsible for provoking rape.
Her comments drew a flood of unfavourable reports in the international media, prompting a government spokesperson to deny that a mini-skirt ban was in place. Gender rights activists considered this a partial victory.
“The government’s first response to women seeking our rights was to block us and threaten us with arrest, and to control us by telling us what to wear. That is their instinct, and it is going to be hard to overcome, but we are determined not only for our own sake but for the sake of the country,” said Simelane.
Ntombi Dube, a health worker in Manzini, argued that the only way for Swaziland to reverse economic and social decay was for women to assume a greater role in policymaking.
“This is what Swazi women have been doing in our ‘regiments’ for generations… Men have got to stop seeing our call for the end of discrimination against women as an attempt to usurp their authority,” she said.
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The new constitution stipulates that a third of members of parliament should be women, but the actual proportion is about a quarter - and parliament’s role is limited to raising and debating issues, as legislation can only be drafted by cabinet.
The women’s advocacy groups insist they are not asking Swazi women to choose between traditional Swazi life and Western concepts of femininity, arguing that this is a false choice.
“There is no traditional life to live any more. It is sad that the old multi-generational homestead where women held respected roles is a thing of the past,” said Dube. “We can’t go back to that, and we have to adapt as African women who are proud of a culture that respects women. That respect got lost somewhere.”
Simelane agreed: “All these laws that make Swazi women second-class human beings, they were not part of traditional Swazi life because we did not live under Western laws. Swazi women want to return to the way it was when we were equal.”