21 May 2018

Swaziland and the Woman Question

By Nelly Mncina

Lobamba: Mana Mamba – Raising four children on her own in a one-room hut with a leaky roof (WFP - 2011). On 19 April 2018 Mswati will invite poor mothers like Mana to his lavish birthday celebrations and sing his praises as he wastes hundreds of millions in public funds.

Despite claims that Swaziland is a modern country, despite pledges and commitments to uplift the living standards of women, the reality is that women in Swaziland continue to be victims of extreme oppression and discrimination. Women are treated as inferior beings and denied the enjoyment of their rights under the dictatorship of Mswati III, who rules Swaziland with an iron fist as an absolute monarch. Swaziland is a deeply patriarchal society where women oppression is normalised by the monarchical regime, also known as tinkhundla, which is unwilling to transform.

Role of religion and culture in oppression of women

One of the key drivers of patriarchy is religion, especially as driven by the tinkhundla regime. With Swaziland being dominated by Christianity, the regime too often uses the bible to deepen the “God-mandated” subordination of women to men. Swazi women are indoctrinated to accept and cherish an inferior status. When women fight against patriarchy, they are often attacked for fighting against nature, God and the king. This situation should never be accepted by working class women. These vile ideas must be fought against wherever they show up!

In addition to religion, the treatment of women as second class citizens also finds its basis in Swazi culture. The religion and culture mix leads to the belief that a man’s wife is essentially a firstborn child of the family. In too many public meetings in Swaziland, especially in traditional meetings in the communities, a woman is not allowed to speak. If she has something to say she asks her husband to speak on her behalf, and if she is a widow she asks her male relative. In many communities in Swaziland it is still regarded as taboo for a woman to speak in the presence of men. If she wishes to speak, she must kneel whilst making her contribution. This has been evident in the gatherings organised by Mswati that take place at Lobamba royal kraal.

Women and the workplace

Whilst women still suffer the worst with regard to unemployment, the workplace also proves to be a place of pain and grief for women. Since the decision whether a woman gets employed or not rests largely with men, it often happens that for a woman to get a job she has to offer sexual favours to the man in charge. The same happens when it comes to promotion and other rights that women deserve as workers.

According to a 2016 report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), women have few formal employment opportunities and wages for women are low. According to the report, Swaziland has a Gender Inequality Index (GII) value of 0.566, ranking 137th out of 159 countries in the 2015 index. The report adds that in Swaziland 27.3 percent of adult women have reached at least a secondary level of education compared to 30.5 percent of their male counterparts. For every 100,000 live births, 389 women die from pregnancy related causes; and the adolescent birth rate is 70.4 births per 1,000 women of ages 15-19. Female participation in the labour market is 40.0 percent compared to 64.2 percent for men.  

The right to maternity leave exists only in name. The reality, especially in the garments sector, is that women have to choose to work through their pregnancies or take leave and be fired. In a report covered by the Swazi Observer newspaper, the Secretary General of the Amalgamated Trade Unions of Swaziland (ATUSWA) commented, “Pregnant women on maternity leave are still being replaced in Swaziland. In fact, the employers normally advise these women to resign and take their severance pay which is calculated for only 10 days per year.”

Women and property rights

Since women are regarded as children, for far too long they have not enjoyed the right to own land without a male counterpart. This makes women dependent on their husbands. Widows, divorced women and single mothers have been the worst victims of such a backward practice.

Married women are also not allowed to take bank loans without a written permission from their husbands, thus a woman finds it extremely hard to progress economically under the current patriarchal society of Swaziland.

Violence against women

It is a known fact that women are the worst victims of violence, domestic or otherwise, in Swaziland. Despite this, Swaziland’s tinkhundla Parliament has taken over a decade dilly-dallying over the Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Bill and refused to pass it into law. So many flimsy excuses have been offered for the failure to pass the Bill; from the Bill being “against nature”, to its being “uncultural” and “unSwazi” and thus negatively affecting men’s rights to approach and court a woman as and when they wish, in line with old Swazi ways. The regime does not care that in Swaziland 1 in 3 girls experience sexual violence before they reach the age of 18.

Tintswalo Ngobeni protesting in the United Kingdom. In 2013, fearing for her life, Tintswalo sought asylum in the UK after absolute monarch Mswati III wanted to forcefully marry her as his 14th wife. 

Tinkhundla elections and ritual murders

This year, 2018, Mswati, the last absolute monarch in sub-Saharan Africa, will conduct his sham elections; an exercise in futility as there is nothing democratic about these elections. These elections have another effect, however; they enrich a few people who go to parliament. In the scramble for those parliamentary seats, it is again women who become victims. The tinkhundla elections go away with many women’s lives who are ritually murdered by aspiring candidates to win elections.  In fact, ritual killing cases increase when the country heads towards elections and national ceremonies such as Incwala, Umhlanga (reed dance) and Mswati's birthday.

During the 2008 tinkhundla elections, the Swaziland government banned a women’s march to protest against ritual murders. The authorities argued that the march would have been a sign of disrespectful to the dictator. The march had been motivated by that election year’s mystery disappearances and murders of women. Some of these women had been found mutilated. Their case was swept under the carpet by the tinkhundla regime.

It is a fact spoken in hush tones in Swaziland that girls die every year during the Umhlanga ceremony under unclear circumstances. Such deaths are usually kept secret by the regime. In 2014, a 16 year old girl died under mysterious conditions after having collapsed shortly after eating food served by the regime at the reed dance. Some girls have been reported to have drowned in shallow waters, with the regime later warning their families against speaking to the media about the deaths or telling them to not seek autopsies.

This is one of the trucks used by the absolute monarch to ferry maidens during the annual Umhlanga ceremony. Girls die every year whilst riding on these trucks.

The biggest number of deaths in one year happened on 28 August 2015. Maidens who were travelling in the regime’s open trucks died, and tens of them heavily wounded, when the truck they were travelling in collided with another vehicle. The regime ensured to sweep under the carpet any information related to the incident, with families warned against speaking to the media about the issue. The tinkhundla regime praised the death of those girls as a brave act of sacrifice for their king by the dead girls. Till this day the truth about that accident has not been told. We demand justice for our sisters!


In the context of Swaziland, the first point of struggle for women emancipation is the struggle to dismantle the tinkhundla regime. Both women and men have the duty to contribute to the struggle for gender equality. There can be no freedom for Swaziland without the freedom of women. Thus, the struggle for women emancipation is interwoven with the Swaziland struggle for freedom.

Likewise, there can be no struggle for a democratic Swaziland without women playing an active part in it, putting their demands forward whilst waging the democratic revolution. It must be clear, additionally, that this struggle should also be waged within the mass democratic movement, for the organisations making up this movement are not immune to the maladies that come with patriarchy.

Comrade Nelly Mncina serves as the Women Organiser in the Communist Party of Swaziland

·         Liciniso

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