Wednesday, May 13, 2009


More evidence of the horrendous way Swazi culture treats women and girls emerged this week with a report in the world famous medical journal, the Lancet.

One in three girls in Swaziland has experienced sexual violence by the age of 18, according to a study.

Sexual violence against girls (females under the age of 18) is a substantial health and human rights problem, the report concludes.

A total of 1,244 individuals participated in the study and provided details of their experience of sexual violence. This was defined as forced intercourse; coerced intercourse; attempted unwanted intercourse; unwanted touching; and forced touching.

A little over a third of participants reported sexual violence by the age of 18, and this increased to 38 percent when the investigators included young women aged between 18 and 24 years. Forced intercourse was reported by 5 percent of girls before the age of 18, with coerced intercourse being reported by 9 percent.. The youngest age at which sexual violence was experienced was twelve, with the mean age being a little under 16 years.

Of the girls who reported sexual violence, 43 percent had experienced two or more incidents by the age of 18.

The most common perpetrators of the first incident of sexual violence were men or boys from the respondent’s neighbourhood or boyfriends or husbands. Over a quarter of all incidents of sexual violence occurred in the respondent’s own home, with a fifth occurring at the home of a friend, relative or neighbour.

‘This study documents that sexual violence against girls younger than 18 years of age affected one in three…and has serious health consequences’, note the investigators. They also comment that in most cases the perpetrators of sexual violence ‘were men or boys from the respondent’s neighbourhood, boyfriends or husbands, or male relatives’.

The investigators conclude that ‘this pattern could indicate the vulnerability of girls to victimisation and the importance of cultural factors that influence relationships between men, women, and children. Future strategies should focus on prevention of perpetration by men of sexual violence against girls, and since sexual and intimate partner violence might have common roots, local and national initiatives could be reviewed, adapted, and potentially scaled up for this purpose.’

The study was conducted in 2007 and I reported on it in April 2008. At that time, one of the people who conducted interviews with women and girls, commented, ‘Emotional abuse of girls is mostly carried out by the girls' female relatives, who were abused themselves. ‘Sometimes there is jealousy. Instead of reporting an abusive husband or unable to police [the girl], the girl’s mother or aunt will treat the girl as a rival.

‘This comes from a culture where any post-pubescent girl is considered eligible for marriage in a polygamous household, even if she is 13, although Swazi culture does not allow for the incest we find rampant in households where abuse occurs.’

The sexual abuse is only one aspect of the way Swazi culture discriminates against women. In June 2008 I reported that the National Democratic and Health Survey found that 40 percent of men in Swaziland say it is all right to beat women.

Last month, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) found that the status of some women in Swaziland is so low that they are practically starved at meal times, because men folk eat first and if there is not enough food for everyone, the women must go without.

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