afrol News, 26 November - Introduced by the absolute Swazi King Mswati III as a measure against the spread of HIV, the five-year's sex ban for young Swazi women provokes unwanted side effects. Prostitution is expected to rise, marriages are down, infanticide and abortions are on the rise and gender equality has suffered a serious blow.
17-year-old Lungile Dlamini from the capital Mbabane commented on the sex ban: "I think this will promote the commercial sex industry - I think the ladies of the night will be getting a lot of customers in the light of the sex ban."
- This is going to deprive us of getting married, because our lovers won't wait for us for five years, commented 16-year-old Michelle Martyn, also from Mbabane.
Having in mind that an estimated 25 percent of the Swazi adult population is HIV infected, Swazi King Mswati III used his absolute powers to meet the declared "national emergency". In September, he revived a traditional law on chastity barring virgins from so much as shaking hands with males. The new rules for unwed maidens is called "uMcwasho", named after the traditional woollen tassel a girl wears around her forehead, indicating that she is object to the five-year sex ban.
The uMcwasho includes severe penalties for breaking the sex ban. Any girl denounced for breaking the uMcwasho is put on trial at a chief's court, without benefit of legal council. Found guilty, her father will be fined a cow, in monetary value equalling a Swazi worker's net monthly income. Equally important is the cow's customary value within a Swazi household, treasured as a symbol of wealth and status and seldom marketed.
When holding together accessible information from Swaziland two months after the ban was enacted, serious side effects of the well meant strong action against the spread of AIDS in the small Southern African kingdom are widely registered.
The relative status of unwed women is obviously affected by the uMcwasho, as young men not are directly affected by the new legislation. Even when impregnating a girl wearing the uMcwasho tassel, boys and men are not in any way made responsible.
Thembi Shongwe, a counsellor for the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA), recently told IPS that those girls "know they will be beaten and their life will be hell if their daddy has to give up a cow because they fall pregnant ... The boys and men who impregnate them, of course, will be completely unaffected, as always."
Even before the uMcwasho, life was tough on pregnant teenage girls, as it automatically resulted in the expulsion from Swazi schools. Many resolved to illegal abortions to be able to continue education and later be able to found a family.
Illegal back street abortions, with a high health risk and mortality are expected to be common in Swaziland, but of course no statistics exist. Numbers from nearby Malawi however indicate that half of that country's hospital beds carry illegal abortion cases. A report there concluded that up to 30 percent of Malawian women carrying out illegal abortions "die of severe bleeding and postnatal sepsis." Swazi health workers now fear that girls who fall pregnant during the sex ban will seek illegal abortions, putting their lives at risk.
Even more dramatic are the recent rush of infanticide cases reported in the Swazi press. Five incidents of young mothers killing their babies have been reported this year, the perpetrators usually unwed and in their teens. In an ongoing case, a 22-year-old woman, who strangled her baby, is being tried for murder - a crime that carries the death penalty. Swazi health workers claim the uMcwasho seriously is "adding to the pressure" on impregnated unwed girls, and partly can explain the rise in infanticide.
Infanticide however remains a very seldom exception, only turned to by the most desperate youngsters. Illegal abortions or carrying the baby and facing the social and economic reactions remain the absolute norm.
Swazi officials however claim that the uMcwasho should have the opposite effect, namely of "slowing down the rate of unwanted teenage pregnancies in Swaziland." They point out that the tradition indeed protects girls from unwanted sexual attention. Any man who attempts to persuade a girl into a sexual encounter will be fined a cow, according to the tradition.
The family of a man found guilty of such charges by a chief's court is supposed to pay a fine to the chief of the area, who then gives it to the girls who slaughter it and eat it. The guilty man is marked as being disrespectful to the monarchy. "Swazi men respect this rite as it also encourages observance of women's rights and enforces a culture of respect for women," the official version reads. Sceptical voices however claim it is difficult for young girls to be heard in a chief's court.
Equally serious is the question whether the uMcwasho actually will prevent the spread of HIV or even increase it. As young men are excluded from the sex ban, and for the next five years might find it harder to engage in a sexual relationship with young, unwed girls, their sexual habits might turn towards the more risky business of prostitution, locals say.
- The guys are not going to abstain from sex, 15-year-old Tanele Dlamini told 'The Christian Science Monitor'. "If they have to, they'll just go to other places like Mozambique or South Africa and then come back with AIDS." As many others, she believes the powerful chiefs will be somewhat able to impose uMcwasho in rural areas, but in the cities, one does "not follow the traditional ways".
Fighting the spread of AIDS, Tanele agrees with Swazi health workers, is best done by education. Beatrice Dlamini, the nurse who manages the government HIV-AIDS program at the Mbabane government hospital, says, "Without more education, reviving traditions will do little." In fact, expect declaring a "national emergency" over the AIDS crisis two years ago, King Mswati is said to have done little to combat the pandemic.
Swazi teens further are angered by the social consequences of the uMcwasho. Pre-marriage sexual relations being the norm, at least in urban areas, girls fear they will not get married for the next five years, should they follow the ban.
Even more voices are raised about the poor aesthetics of the uMcwasho tassels. While teen virgins are to wear large blue and yellow tassels, those in relationships or older than 19 are to wear red and black tassels. "They look ridiculous," Mbabane teenagers complain. Also the ban on wearing pants doesn't delight urban teen girls' taste for modernity.
While unwed Mbabane girls in their twenties still mostly boycott the tassels because of personal conviction, Mbabane teen girls, if allowed by their fathers, refer to aesthetics. And in Mbabane, "very few students wear it to school," teacher Sarah Dupont-Mkhonza observed. King Mswati only met laughter when in October attending the graduation ceremony at the University of Swaziland, telling the students, "As I was looking around I did not see even a single graduate wearing uMcwasho."
The King however learned his lessons, and after this visit turned to stronger measures. According to Swazi youth organisations, students are now being "kicked out of school by soldiers" if they are caught disobeying the ban or ignoring the uMcwasho order.
- This revival ... is an extension of that gendered narrative on AIDS, Suzanne Leclerc-Madlala, a professor of medical anthropology at the University of Natal, told 'The Christian Science Monitor'. "It's saying that women are responsible for this epidemic and that they are responsible for stopping it."
Phepsile Maseko, Coordinator of the National Youth Gender Caucus of Swaziland, totally agrees the sex ban is not the way to fight the spread of AIDS in his country. Interviewed by Shamillah Wilson earlier this month, Maseko concludes, "The government is clearly demonstrating an unwillingness to deal effectively with the epidemic" by making the uMcwasho its main weapon against AIDS.
The government "does not try to address the problem through government policies and programs," says Maseko. "It does not address the need to care of those already infected with the virus nor does it introduce ways to prevent the spread of the disease through preventative methods such as good public awareness and education programmes. In addition, it does not increase access to reproductive healthcare services and information for young people."
The youth counsellor concludes the government "only entrenches the power imbalances within such a patriarchal culture by making women's sexual activity an unnatural one that can have fatal consequences for men and reinforces that control of women within society." The government thus "encourages male sexual patterns and absolves them of any responsibility in preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases," says Maseko.
The last time the uMcwasho was enacted, in 1986, critics were more silent. Swazi society however has moved ahead since then, as the 2001 voices demonstrate. The uMcwasho tradition now only seems to meet support among the dwindling number of traditionalists and monarchists.