March 12, 2003

Widows banned from being election candidates

Widows who have been bereaved within the past two years have been banned from running as candidates in this year's parliamentary election, enraging women's empowerment groups who are already bristling under cultural restrictions that regard Swazi women as legal minors. "You can say that when I read that widows will not be allowed into parliament, it made me so angry I was ashamed of being a Swazi," attorney Fikile Mtembu, former mayor of Swaziland's largest urban area Manzini, and a widow, told IRIN. "This is persecution of the highest order," she said. Chief Electoral Officer Robert Thwala was reported in the local media this week warning: "Widows will not be able to stand for elections to parliament. This is in keeping with Swazi tradition, where women must respect the proper mourning period."

The Swaziland branch of the legal advocacy group Women in Law in Southern Africa is concerned that not only are thousands of capable women being denied the chance to run for office, but they are prevented from even casting ballots. "Women who put on the widow's black gowns are not permitted to appear in public for two years, and only after they undergo a 'cleansing' ritual. The polling places are at the chiefs' residences or at public places. How can a widow go to those places? There is no provision for absentee ballots for widows who are required to stay at home," Zakhe Hlanze, research assistant for the group, told IRIN. "The mourning custom denies women their human rights. They are not even allowed to tell their chiefs their problems, because they are wearing black. Such women have no way of having their needs known," Hlanze said.

Mtembu said: "Women are hardly represented at all in parliament [where only four out of 65 MPs are women]. Denying women the right to run for office will perpetuate this gender imbalance. We are being denied representation." Women's rights advocates complain that the leadership of Swaziland's patriarchal society want to perpetuate a gender imbalance in the government of a country where women are not permitted to own property, obtain bank loans or enter into contracts without the sponsorship of a male relative.

A demographic change wrought by HIV/AIDS is raising the "threat", in the traditionalists' view, that more women will enter public service. Currently, 38,6 percent of the adult population is HIV-positive. "We are losing men left and right," said Mtembu. "This is a disease not of women's making, but it is creating many widows. You go to the street, and you see how many women are in black - intelligent, educated women. They are disqualified from running to be MPs."

Some women like Mtembu, who have professional responsibilities or families to support, cut short the official mourning period, and remove their black gowns. "But politics is a dirty business," a source at the Swaziland Law Society told IRIN. "A candidate running against a recent widow could have her disqualified from seeking office until her two year mourning period ends. Also, a community knows which widow to bar from voting." The official mourning period has been an object of desired reform for women's groups because it hinders women's abilities to earn an income to support their families. A 2002 UN Development Programme report criticised the mourning period for further impoverishing destitute families. "The old social safety net where widows were supported by extended families is no longer in place," the report said. Women's minority status means that their husband's estates go to his family, which sometimes gives nothing to his former wife and children.

Mtembu feels that Swazi law and custom is arbitrarily applied, in the current case by government to disenfranchise women and keep parliament predominantly male. "Let us finally codify Swazi Law and Custom so we know where we stand. Let us debate it honestly. You become so frustrated because of the discrimination. You have no platform to debate. We work so hard to support our families, then you have these people in positions of responsibility like the elections commissioner saying these irresponsible things, and they don't care," she said. The Women in Law society agrees that the custom of widows' mourning period should be reviewed. "There is one person who can order widows to remove their mourning gowns. It is the king," Hlanze said. "King Mswati did this in 1998. He told widows to remove their black gowns and undergo cleansing rituals so they might participate in the combined celebration of his 30th birthday and the 30th anniversary of independence," she said. But while the king freed widows to come to his birthday party, he did not issue a similar order to allow them to participate in the last parliamentary election, which was also held in 1998. (IRIN)

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