Two women in their thirties, described as ‘virgins’ have been locked away in their remote home in Swaziland (eSwatini) for the past seven years and will remain imprisoned until husbands are found for them – in the name of religion.
Hleziphi, aged 34, and Ncobile Mphaphu, aged 32, of KaShewula, in Mnyamatsini, are members of the Shembe Nazareth Church, which is a combination of Zulu culture and Old Testament Christianity.
Phiwase Phungwayo, the Times of eSwatini reporter who discovered the two women, wrote, ‘One of the women was said to have been crippled from staying indoors for such a long time.’
The Times spoke to the women’s mother Josephine who confirmed the two were virgins. The Times reported, ‘According to the mother, a voice appeared to them through a dream from their God. She claims that it informed the women to seclude from the world and serve Him until the right time for them to become wives, a time which till today, had not been revealed.’
The Times was denied access to the women for an interview. ‘This, according to Josephine, was an abomination and was strictly against the Shembe culture,’ it reported.
It added, ‘When explaining the women’s confinement, the mother says it is called kugoma, meaning a sacred time for women to set apart from the world and be confined in a room until their God appeared to them in a dream to inform them when to return to the world. She says this is done by women who are 20 and above.’
It quoted the mother saying, ‘They stay in their room and are not allowed to do anything except to pray and communicate with our god.’
The mother told the Times that church elderly women who are also virgins would arrange for men who were seeking wives to meet with the virgin girls. ‘The mother articulated that the men who were interested in taking a wife would then indicate which woman he was interested in and it was up to the woman if she also approved of the man.’
The mother said the Shembe religion was ‘observant and obedient of the eSwatini [Swazi] traditional customs’.
The Times spoke to Shembe Nazareth Church senior member Qedusizi Ndlovu who said the women’s culture was ‘bizarre and unacceptable in this religion’. He said, ‘There is no such law in the Shembe culture since its establishment in the country in 1926.’
The case highlights the position of women in Swaziland where by tradition they are considered to be owned by their fathers or their husbands.
Women remain oppressed in Swaziland and a main reason for this is King Mswati III who rules as an absolute monarch, according to report on women in the kingdom published in 2016.
ACTSA (Action for Southern Africa) reported that despite claims that Swaziland was a modern country, ‘the reality is, despite pledges and commitments, women continue to suffer discrimination, are treated as inferior to men, and are denied rights.’
ACTSA added, ‘The King has demonstrated he is unwilling to change the status quo and promotes multiple aspects of the patriarchal society.’
In a briefing paper called Women’s Rights in Swaziland ACTSA said, ‘Swaziland has a deeply patriarchal society, where polygamy and violence against women are normalised, deeply unequal cultural and religious norms, and a male monarch who is unwilling to make any change. All this contributes towards the daily discrimination faced by women.’
In March 2018 the European Union in Swaziland began funding a three-year project called Supporting Women Empowerment & Equality in Swaziland (SWEES) to advocate for and support women’s rights in the kingdom.
In September 2018 a report published by Afrobarometer found women’s rights continued to be ‘a challenging issue’ in Swaziland.
‘Violence and abuse are a major development concern in eSwatini profoundly affecting women and children,’ the report stated.
About one in three women experienced some form of sexual violence as a child, and one in four experienced other forms of physical violence as a child.
Woman, 36, in Swaziland beaten and ordered to leave home because she is not married