June 24, 2002

Tradition Preserves Gender Inequality

King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch, has promised a new constitution by year's end, but the women of Swaziland see no change in sight in their centuries' old subordinate status.

"We are seeing a retention of the political status quo in the new constitution, and we are worried that other reforms like gender equality will also be dismissed," said Doo Aphane, legal consultant for the Swaziland branch of Women in Law of Southern Africa.

Her concern was underlined when Jim Gama, the country's most powerful traditional authority, ordered soldiers to strip women wearing trousers in the royal villages of Lobamba and Ludzidzini, 15 km east of the capital, Mbabane. Gama, a radio talkshow host on Swaziland's only radio service, which is owned by government, "endeared himself to the national leadership by being a super traditionalist who regularly belittled women on the air," said women's rights activist Pholile Dlamini. "Government leaders have a way of rewarding people who agree with them, and censoring dissenters."

In the middle of June, the station's second call-in show was cancelled by the prime minister after some callers complained that officers of the Royal Swaziland Police Force do not take crimes against women seriously, and are only interested in protecting princes and royal interests.

In 2001, Gama was appointed governor of Ludzidzini, the Queen Mother's village, which made him Swaziland's "indvunankhuluyesive", or traditional prime minister. Along with King Mswati's palace counsellors, he advises on the appointment of the administrative prime minister and his cabinet, ministry principal secretaries and top magistrates. "The first thing Gama did was ban women reporters from royal press conferences if they wore pants," said Dlamini. "Extending the ban to residents of both royal villages raises our suspicions that a national ban is next." Dlamini and others have noted that last year the nation's leadership instituted heavy fines for unmarried Swazi girls and young women who wear pants. Unfavourable reports in the international press prompted the ban to be dropped. It now appears the withdrawal of the dress code was temporary.

"There has been nothing in the Constitutional Review Commission report about gender equality or women's rights," said Fikile Mthembu, an attorney and former mayor of Manzini, Swaziland's most populous urban area. "The king said the constitution will be based on the commission's report, and this worries us that women's issue may be left out."

Women in Law in Southern Africa has reason to be concerned about Swazi women's place under a social and political dispensation to be spelled out in the palace-initiated constitution. Despite having the vote since the first pre-independence national referendum in 1964, Swazi women are legally minors. A woman cannot own property, acquire a bank loan, or enter into a legal contract without the consent of a male relative, who steps in on her behalf to become the legal owner of a property and the beneficiary of a contract. "The cases we are faced are typified by a women who seeks to go into business, but must put the business in her husband's name. He can take it over, and banish her," said attorney Aphane. "When a husband dies, Swazi custom says his property is taken by his brothers and not his widow. We have seen women buy their own homes, and be thrown into the street by her deceased husband's family."

Calls for a reform of Swazi customs to make them more gender equitable have been heard this year from an unlikely source, a conservative "cultural organisation" that aspires to be a political party if international pressure succeeds in persuading the palace to lift its ban on political organisations. At its biennial convention held this month, some influential leaders of Sive Siyinqaba - its name is taken from the national motto, and means "We are a fortress" - called for the elimination of the custom of kungena. Kungena means "the entering", and refers to a widow's admission into the homestead - and bed - of her deceased husband's brother. In earlier times of multi-generational polygamous farms, the brother assumed his dead sibling's worldly goods and wives to ensure continuing procreation at a time of low life spans and high infant mortality.

"Today, this is a recipe for the spread of HIV," said Sive Siyinqaba president Amos Vilakati. "I would like to challenge all authorities to also look very closely at some of our other customary practices." Janet Nxumalo, who counsels HIV-positive Swazis, was impressed that a conservative cultural organisation should challenge traditional customs. "The motive was to stop AIDS, and not from concern about women's rights. But if widows are allowed to retain their property and live independent lives, this will be a great benefit to women and to the nation, which is being deprived of the full extent of Swazi women's capabilities," she explained. Another custom being questioned is lobola, a payment of cattle dowry given by a groom to a bride's parents. The custom also hails from an earlier time when survival was so precarious the loss of a young woman's labour adversely affected a homestead's economy. The custom continues today as a gesture of thanks to a bride's parents for properly raising their daughter to be a good wife.

However, the Times of Swaziland this week noted that the custom objectifies women by seeming to put a price on their value. The newspaper cited the case of a man arrested for sexually molesting a three-year-old girl who offered the child's parents five cows as compensation. "He was paying the cattle because she lost her virginity and could no longer command a proper dowry," said Nxumalo. "He saw nothing else wrong in what he did other than tarnish her monetary 'worth'." The sexual predator was sentenced to 15 years in prison, sending a strong message to other child molesters. Women's groups said they were pleased that some national authorities were finally standing up for the rights of victimised women. (IRIN)

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