- The long-deferred trial of Swaziland's alleged first serial killer began this week, highlighting the issues raised at the time of the defendant's arrest in 2001: the vulnerability of women and children in the kingdom's patriarchal society.
David Simelane has been charged with killing 34 women, and testimony given this week suggested he was motivated by a deep anger towards women.
"One aspect that was shocking was that over 30 women and children went missing for up to a year, unreported by their families, until Simelane led police to their graves. This is not supposed to happen in a traditional society, where everyone's whereabouts and welfare are shared by family members," said Alicia Lukhele, a social worker with the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare.
The traditionally low status of women in Swaziland has also been linked to the country's spiralling HIV/AIDS epidemic: 40 percent of the adult population are estimated to be HIV positive, the highest incidence in the world.
Gender activists complain of a high level of abuse of women and children. Swaziland hit the headlines in 2004 when a young woman was stripped and gang-raped by bus conductors at a terminus in the country's main commercial centre, Manzini, while spectators cheered them on.
The woman had allegedly angered the conductors by wearing a miniskirt, which they claimed was "unSwazi". Women in the conservative African kingdom generally wear modern Western clothing and have worn miniskirts since the 1960s, although the government at one stage considered banning them on moral grounds.
Simelane's trial has been delayed for years because forensic tests to process the evidence had to be conducted in neighbouring South Africa.
Charles Masango, a magistrate in Manzini, where the killings took place, led the evidence against Simelane. He testified that Simelane had confessed to him that the killings resulted from his quest for personal revenge against a woman, who had falsely implicated him in a crime that had led to a previous imprisonment.
The court heard this week that Simelane spent six years in prison on a rape and robbery conviction and, when released, allegedly went on a killing spree. He also allegedly murdered children accompanying their mothers. Simelane targeted women in transit with offers of employment.
"The case shows the effects of a country where unemployment for women is so high. These women have to take care of families, without support, particularly in urban areas. They are desperate for jobs. If the story told in court is true, it shows the depths that predators will go to exploit women's desperation for means of income," said Hlobsile Dlamini, a spokeswoman for the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA).
"The killings showed how much our country is changing, and how much we must do to handle urban migration by providing safety nets for single women and vulnerable children," said Lukhele, the social worker.
SWAGAA, an NGO that also offers legal and psychological counseling to abuse survivors, received a big boost from Simelane's arrest in 2001. "The case was big publicity to show that we do have a genuine abuse crisis in Swaziland. It wasn't just some women talking, it was a real social problem," said Dlamini.
In the past five years, SWAGAA's services have expanded, and women's and children's rights initiatives, the latter spearheaded by the UN Children's Fund, Unicef, have taken root. Equal rights for women was one of the main progressive elements in the new national constitution, signed into law by King Mswati this year.
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