Swazi women ignore sex ban

2001-09-30 22:25

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 sexual relations.

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.

Protecting 'flowers'

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.

Different times

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