Speech by Thobile Gwebu, Swaziland Vigil Co-ordinator
I am the co-ordinator of the Swaziland Vigil which has been protesting outside the Swaziland High Commission in London since January 2010. We are Swazis who have had to leave our country because of the oppression there and we want to draw attention to gross violations of human rights by the current regime.
We have protested at King Mswati’s visits to London for the royal wedding and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee because of the vast expense at the cost of our lives at home.
King Mswati III is Africa’s last absolute monarch – and has, at the last count, about 13 wives. He does not represent Swazis. King Mswati was educated at Sherbourne public school in Dorset. We do not know of any other Swazis who have gone to this school and few Swazis have a fortune estimated by Forbes magazine at more than $100 million.
This may be a piffling amount when compared to the greed of many African leaders, but Swazis are reduced to eating cowdung so that they can fill their bellies as required for the AIDS medicines provided by NGOs.
The same people who are eating cow dung, tend the king’s fields and build his traditional houses and are paid nothing by the rich king after such hard work, and he calls it culture. This is modern day slavery looking at me in the eye without a blink. The king has recently taken delivery of a DC-9 twin-engine aircraft claiming it was a gift from ‘anonymous sponsors’. Teachers are on the streets protesting because they haven’t been paid for months. Meanwhile he is enjoying a luxury life instead of giving a future to the young generation by investing in their education. There are no basic drugs in hospitals – patients are dying prematurely.
I ask all the leaders of the world: would you act differently? Would you keep silent and do nothing if you were in our place? Would you not resist if you were allowed no rights in your own country? Women are oppressed to the core by King Mswati. Human rights for swazi women is something that they have heard and seen somewhere not something that they have experienced in their lives. They have no rights at all.
One might ask why I am addressing the British parliament on the Swaziland issue? Well it is about human rights. I believe they are universal and I believe wherever there are human rights abuses the world should stand as one and condemn it with one voice.
Women in Swaziland are subjected to the most horrendous levels of gender-based violence. If they are raped by their husbands they have no legal protection. There are no laws against domestic violence. On the rare occasions where a rape case ends up in court, the law even allows a rapist to claim that the victim appeared to be 16 or appeared to be a prostitute as grounds for defence or even that he married her traditionally. In 2009 research found that almost one third of women and girls aged 13 to 24 had experienced sexual violence before their 18th birthday. Another survey found that 60 per cent of men believed it was acceptable to beat their wives and that 18 per cent of women (between 13 and 44) had contemplated suicide, primarily as a result of domestic violence.
To see the discrimination facing girls you only have to open the papers. Recently in the Times of Swaziland I read comments by a minister saying that the blame for male teachers sexually abusing young girls in their care is down to the length of their skirts. A change in uniform policy would resolve this problem.
Young girls in rural areas are forced by their chiefs to attend the infamous reed dance where they dance for the King in nothing but a grass skirt so he can pick a new bride. This event which attracts thousands of tourists is not only notorious for abuse of these girls, its practices have been twisted to allow soldiers in the name of tradition to demand that girls in short skirts attending royal events remove their underwear. Many are then raped and abused.
Under traditional law a Swazi woman is always a minor, a girl, the property of her father or her husband and his family. Under the custom of Tolena she can be kidnapped, raped and married by a man and his family and her family simply informed of the wedding and paid a dowry.
Women when married are expected to live with their in laws and raise a family. What is shocking is how common abuse is. A matter that cannot be spoken about, a matter that shows a man cares – he is paying you attention. Also common is the number of women who are expected to look after their children, their in-laws, cook, clean and farm whilst their husband goes off to raise another family elsewhere. If the men return HIV positive, their wives have no right to negotiate over condom use. I spoke to a woman whose husband had returned from South Africa after ten years, living with AIDS. She had no choice but to nurse him until he died, pay for his funeral and then be chucked out of her home by her in-laws as a woman under traditional law cannot own property. Sadly this tragic story is not uncommon.
When a woman is widowed she is forced into a period of mourning for up to two and a half years during which she must wear black and is not allowed in public places. So you can lose your land, your home and be forced into a position where you cannot speak, or work but will still be expected to take on the burden of care for your extended family. In one meeting I went to eight out of ten women were looking after orphans. Hardly surprising when there are 80,000 orphans left parentless by a missing generation, lost to AIDS.
So what is the government doing? Nothing.
For the last six years the Swazi government have been kidding women’s organisations and the international community that they would reform their sexist and repressive laws. They have happily accepted funding and support from the European Union, the Commonwealth and the United Nations to write new legislation but have no intention of implementing it.
For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. Be brave!
I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.