Sunday, June 7, 2009


The international outcry after news that Swazi MP Timothy Myeni has called for people who are HIV positive to be branded on the buttocks to advertise the fact, reminds me of just how much work needs to be done in Swaziland to stem the tide of AIDS.

A study of Swazi cultural practices, funded by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and released earlier this year found that they made it difficult to stem the tide of HIV AIDS in Swaziland where the infection rate is as much as 45 percent among some age groups, the highest in the world.

The study found, ‘In Swazi culture, decision making has traditionally been a male prerogative. Family planning decisions, therefore, lie with the man.

‘Women report that they have been subjected to continuous child birth by their husbands or in-laws against their will.’

Another cultural factor is a preference (which is sometimes made into a demand by in-laws) for a woman to bear a boy child. Unwanted pregnancies result as the birth of a girl child is immediately followed by an effort to have a male heir who by traditional law is of the only sex that can lead a family into its next generation.

So strong are these beliefs, coupled with an antipathy toward condom use, that AIDS prevention efforts directed at women haven’t made much headway, according to current statistics. HIV prevalence peaks at age 25-29 amongst Swazi women, 40 percent of whom are HIV-positive in that age group, and at age 30-35 amongst men, 45 percent of whom are HIV-positive in that age group.

In the study, Swazi men strongly defended the practice of kungena, whereby a widow becomes the wife of the deceased man’s brother; a practice that health groups say spreads HIV. Swazi men also defended polygamy as a cultural necessity.

But men also lamented cultural practices they said could stop the spread of HIV, like kuhlawula, whereby men or boys who impregnate unmarried women are fined five cows by their community elders, are no longer enforced.

Several Swazi customs were once in place to ensure that young people stayed chaste until marriages. At the time, marriages were usually arranged between families as forms of alliances. Until the traditional ceremony was completed, young people were not allowed to have sex.

One taboo was the people did not engage in sex outside their age groups.

Boys were subject to ridicule by their contemporaries if they were known to sleep with older women.

Now, Sugar Daddies and Sugar Mamas are common. It is not even sexual attraction that draws the youngest of the partners to such relationships, but the lure of money.

In previous Swazi generations, girls’ sexual debuts were delayed through such customs as umcwasho, when all the nations’ girls of certain ages were forbidden to engage in sex for designated periods.

This was examined last year by a report undertaken by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). he study covered much the same ground as this year’s health ministry research.

On the subject of Swazi customs that have been forgotten, but which could if they had continued positively assisted anti-AIDS efforts, the report noted, ‘Today these social practices have degenerated as a lot of negative sexual practices are tolerated by society.’

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