Swazi women ignore sex ban
Mbabane, Swaziland - Frustrated by the high rate of HIV infection in his country,
Swaziland's king ordered all his young female subjects to don a
symbolic chastity belt, a tasselled scarf signalling a 5-year ban on
Yet nearly three weeks later two scarfless teen-age schoolgirls
waited for a bus on the streets of the capital, Mbabane, and openly
questioned their ruler's edict.
"Five years is too much," said Siphiwe Nkosi, a 14-year-old
wearing a maroon school uniform. "If they had said two years, we
could have observed the tradition."
Nearly two decades after this tiny mountain kingdom was last
subjected to a sex ban, young women in traditional rural areas -
where powerful local chiefs enforce the king's will - appear to
have accepted the order. But it is nearly impossible to find a
scarf among the thousands of newly urbanised girls in Mbabane and
Swaziland's manufacturing hub of Manzini.
Nkosi's mother went to the trouble of buying her one of the
multicoloured tasselled scarves. But it sits unused in her home in a
suburb just outside Mbabane.
"I can't even go to school wearing it because my friends would
laugh at me," she said.
Lungile Dlamini, 16, who attends a different school, agreed.
"If they wanted us to embrace this tradition, it should not have
been imposed on us," she said.
Describing teen-age girls as "flowers that should be protected,"
King Mswati III announced on September 9 the reinstatement of the
traditional chastity rite of umchwasho.
Many Swazis, already confused and annoyed by Mswati's order,
were infuriated when soon after announcing the umchwasho the
33-year-old king announced his engagement to a 17-year-old girl,
who would be his ninth wife.
Under the tradition, in place for the next five years, all
unmarried girls under the age of 18 must wear the multicoloured,
woven scarves signalling they are not to be touched by men.
Banning young women from having sex is a long-standing Swaziland
tradition that is enforced intermittently. It is up to the king to
decide when to issue a chastity order.
If a boy violates umchwasho, the girl and others in the village
are to march to his house and throw their scarves at it. The boy's
family will then be forced to pay his chief a fine of one cow or
R1 300 ($145). No one has been fined yet.
Unmarried women over the age of 18 are to wear red and black
scarves, which allow limited sexual contact, but not intercourse.
Mswati said the umchwasho was necessary to combat the
frightening HIV-infection rate in the country. More than 25 percent
of adults in Swaziland are infected with HIV, according to UNAids.
The disease has already killed tens of thousands of Swazis.
The last umchwasho, decreed by Mswati's father, King Sobhuza II,
was largely adhered to when it was enforced in the early 1980s. But
Swaziland was a vastly different country then.
The cities were smaller and far more heavily influenced by the
conservative values of the rural areas. Girls wore long skirts and
even though some of the more urban girls were embarrassed by the
chastity scarf, they still wore it, hidden beneath their clothing.
Now, Mbabane boast buildings 12 stories high and nearly a
quarter of the 1 million Swazis live in the cities, where teen-age
girls show off their constricting designer jeans, skintight tank
tops and platform shoes.
"The tradition now has lost meaning," broadcast journalist
Comfort Mabuza said.
Queen Mother Ntombi Thwala defended the sex ban, saying the
tradition would help promote moral values in unmarried women.
But teachers and women throughout the cities decried it as
misguided and bizarre.
Philile Mamba, a 23-year-old student at the University of
Swaziland, wondered how effective umchwasho could be in stopping
the spread of HIV in a country where young girls were still forced
to marry sexually experienced men far older than them.
"By eradicating this practice, we would have taken a giant step
toward combating HIV, instead of just having wool hanging down from
the girl's head to her shoulders," she said. "Why can't we channel
all the resources into educating young girls to uphold their
self-esteem ... (so) they are able to say no to sexual advances."
"I think we are missing the point here," she said. - Sapa/AP