Saturday, October 14, 2017


Women’s rights campaigners in Swaziland appear to have won a small victory on the
Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Bill (SODV).

A report to the Swazi House of Assembly recommended scrapping four clauses in the Bill that dealt with incest, unlawful stalking, abduction and flashing.

In the Bill, stalking was defined as loitering near, contacting a person in anyway; including but not limited to telephone, mail, fax email or through use of technology. Any intimidating, harassing or threatening act against a person whether or not involving violence or a threat of violence was also defined as stalking. 

The clause that defined flashing as the exposure of or display of genital organs and female breasts among others was said to seriously undermine the Swazi tradition of dressing (imvunulo) and other practices. Each year thousands of bare-breasted women dance in front of King Mswati III at the Reed Dance.

The clause on incest, described as an act of sexual penetration or attempts with a person’s offspring or sibling, parent, grandparent, uncle, aunt, nephew or niece was said to be too broad-ranging. The committee report said there were already laws that covered these offences.

An outcry developed on the streets and in the pages of the kingdom’s only two daily newspapers when it was said that the clauses went against traditional Swazi culture.

In an editorial comment, the Times of Swaziland, the kingdom’s only independent daily newspaper, said, ‘If MPs go ahead with this, they ought to be aware that they are just about to officially brand Swazi culture as a tool to suppress women and girls in this country. This is not an image we wish for ourselves when the world is pushing aggressively for gender equality and the protection for women and girls.’

Within a week the clauses were reinstated. The future of the SODV Bill is unclear since parliamentary procedure might mean it cannot be discussed again until next year. The SODV Bill in one form or another has been going through parliament since 2009.

The controversy has once again highlighted the abuses that women and girls suffer under Swazi traditional law and custom.

In 2013, a 317-page document called The Indigenous Law and Custom of the Kingdom of Swaziland (2013) was presented to King Mswati III who rules Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch. It said that under Swazi Law and Custom a husband can legally rape his wife or his lover. 

Under Chapter 7, which addresses offences (emacala) in Swaziland, rape is said to be committed only if the woman forced is not the man’s wife or lover.

In 2015, a report from a US organisation ABCNewspoint stated that Swaziland had the fourth highest rate of rape in the world. It said there were 77.5 registered cases of rape among 100,000 people.

Rape and sexual abuse of children is common in Swaziland. In 2008, Unicef reported that one in three girls in Swaziland were sexually abused, usually by a family member and often by their own fathers - 75 percent of the perpetrators of sexual violence were known to the victim.

Many men in Swaziland believed was all right to rape children if their own wives were not giving them enough sex. In 2009, men who were interviewed during the making of the State of the Swaziland Population report said they ‘“salivate” over children wearing skimpy dress codes because they are sexually starved in their homes.’

In 2009, a study of Swazi cultural practices, funded by the United Nations Population Fund, 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 the report.

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.

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