Swaziland is a small country in Southern Africa with a population just over one million. It is the only absolute monarchy left on the African continent and is known primarily for its sugar exports and scenic tours.
But underneath the surface, this small country has a huge problem: women are highly discriminated against and essentially have the same rights as children.
“It is a scandal how the authorities refuse to take women seriously when we are holding the country together,” female activist Cynthia Simelane told the Guardian in 2013.
Women are mostly resigned to traditional gender roles, a problem that deprives girls of opportunities outside of the household.
“Cultural gender norms dictate that women and girls provide the bulk of household-related work, including physical and emotional care,” Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA) reported in 2016. “As a result, girls are under pressure to drop out from school, especially where there are few adults available to care for children and the elderly, for example, in child-headed households.”
The lack of education and the expectations of domesticity leave girls and women dependent on their fathers or husbands to control all of the household resources. When a woman wants or needs to make extra money, there are few opportunities for work with ample wages. This often drives women to work as sex workers.
And perhaps this contributes to the high rates of women diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. 31 percent of Swazi women have been diagnosed with HIV, and that doesn’t account for the women who have not been diagnosed or treated. On top of that, 71 percent of female sex workers are HIV-positive, a problem that has likely contributed to the fact that Swaziland has the highest percentage of adults living with the disease.
Swazi women also lack legal rights, largely because they are not legally considered equal to men. They cannot buy, sell, or own land, which means widows are often forced from their homes because they aren’t allowed to take control of their husband’s property.
The lack of legal protection also stretches into sexual matters. In Swaziland, marital rape is legal, which has contributed to the fact that about one-third of Swazi women have experienced some type of sexual violence by the time they turn 18.
With statistics like these, it’s no surprise that Swaziland is ranked number 148 out 187 on the Gender Inequality Index.
The Swazi government has attempted to fix these issues, but it doesn’t look like their attempts have worked as well as they should have. The country passed a constitution in 2006 that, among other things, technically makes women legally equal to men, but Swazi customs overshadow the new laws, leaving women right where they started.
The country’s monarch, King Mswati III, also gets some of the blame for not enforcing the constitution.
“The King has demonstrated he is unwilling to change the status quo and promotes multiple aspects of the patriarchal society,” reported ACTSA.
The European Union in Swaziland has announced a three-year plan to help promote women’s rights in the country. The plan, which is called Supporting Women Empowerment & Equality in Swaziland (SWEES), aims to create an environment where women can finally receive equal rights.
While the details of this plan are not yet concrete, hopefully it will serve as a way to push the Swazi government to put more resources into empowering women and allowing them to thrive.
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